I first learned about metacognition in the early 90’s when I was in graduate school at The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. My master’s degree is in Speech-Language Pathology which means that in addition to learning about speech and language, I have studied cognitive (thinking) skills extensively.
Metacognition is the ability to think about what we are thinking about. It is the high-level thinking skill which allows us to be aware our thoughts. Originally this was deemed a human skill but there are some other animals who show signs of metacognition.
My ability to think about what I am thinking about became a large part of my hope and healing last summer/fall. I was quite sick and felt extremely discouraged after nearly 17 years of dealing with crohn’s disease, chronic migraines, leukemia and now immunodeficiency due to chemotherapy.
Because I am allergic to the medical treatment for immunodeficiency, I am left piecing together good hygiene with what has felt to be a very limited amount of immune-boosting agents in an attempt to protect myself from infections, viruses, and even common bacteria.
This is not something I ever imagined would be my life experience. I never anticipated that I would beat cancer only to have a future that can feel bleak and hemmed in by isolation due to immunodeficiency. The chemotherapy I take put leukemia into remission, but I have to stay on it to stay in remission. With leukemia back in remission, I feel great. However, loneliness, repeat infections and a complete upheaval from regular socialization left me grief stricken and fearful from 2015-2017.
It is scary to have a paper thin immune system with nothing sizeable to provide backup support other than my faith in a healing God. I feel like I am falling backward with nobody there to catch me. In addition, my body does not fight incoming germs with typical defense mechanisms such as fevers. This means that I can be getting very sick without the symptoms until I am severely infected.
This is both physically miserable and frankly terrifying.
Last summer I found The Work of Byron Katie. Through her work, I came to understand that much of our life experience is not the actual events that occur in our day but it is how we perceive things to be happening. According to Katie, our minds create stories based on past experiences and emotions combined with future expectations. And if we are not cognizant of our thought process those stories can be daunting during times of duress.
Katie proposes that we create stories in our mind by marrying the memories and emotions of our past with what we imagine to be our future. These thoughts pull us out of the present moment into an experience that is emotionally charged and filled with images that are not our current reality.
Neuroscientist Dr. Joe Dispenza explains that during stressful times our minds create images of our future in the worst possible outcome as a survival mechanism. This is a subconscious method in which our mind attempts to keep us alive, by preparing for the worst. However in reality most of those worst case scenarios never happen.
Last summer I was too sick to take healing walks through nature so I literally wrapped blankets around myself and shuffled back and forth on our back porch soaking up healing rays of vitamin D. I listened to Byron Katie for hours each day and learned how to stop the scary thoughts that bound me.
Over the past 17 years, I have gone through horrifying experiences because of health crises. These experiences provide me a with a very strong, emotionally charged past. That combined with future images of the worst possible outcome sets me up for my mind to create some profoundly sad and frightening thoughts about my life experience.
I reached a new level of hope and peace when I learned how to stop letting my thoughts race back and forth between the past and possible future events; when I learned how to live in the present moment. This required me to first practice metacognition — to think about what I am thinking about. I then went through exercises to stop the past/future thoughts and stay in the present moment.
Since then my fear and grief levels have largely subsided leaving hope and joy in their place.
You don’t have to have immunodeficiency or even leukemia to experience the scary thoughts. You just have to be human, this is what we tend to do unless we teach our minds to stay in the present moment.
I have learned a lot through illness over the years. This is a lesson I wish I had learned before I ever got sick. You can apply these strategies to finance, work, relationships in addition to health and experience a much more peaceful, positive life experience.
“God designed humans to observe our own thoughts, catch those that are bad, and get rid of them.”