Brain Nazis and Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D.

Have You Got a Brain Nazi?

If you’re conscious, you’re monitoring your environment. You have to. It’s how you survive. This is not something you can turn off. It’s just one of those systems that runs automatically, like your liver. You’re always appraising the situation.

And as soon as you encounter something that’s likely to be of importance to you or yours, your monitor kicks off a physical response to prepare you to deal with or take advantage of it.

The problem is that sometimes a Nazi propagandist worms his way into the monitoring station. And like any good Nazi, he distorts reality.

Sometimes those distortions lead to burning resentment, sometimes to unwarranted shame or anxiety, sometimes to eating disorders, sometimes to grave depression. When I heard of the tragic suicide that occurred in our community a few months ago, my heart went out in sympathy to the girl, her family, and friends.  I’m not a doctor. I don’t know the situation. But I’m positive she was dealing with one of these villains.

I wished I’d been able to share something that’s been a literal life saver to me. Now, it might not have changed anything. But hopefully it can change things in the future for you and others you know who may have to deal with a Nazi in the brain.

And you will have to deal with a brain Nazi at some time.

This is not something that affects a miniscule portion of the population. In any given year you can expect more than 15% of a population to experience some form of this [1]. That’s roughly 238 of the estimated 1,592 people 18 years and older in the little county where I live [2]. Rates for teens are similar [3]. Besides, you don’t have to have a full-blown case of a depression for distortions to affect you. How many of us haven’t made faulty comparisons with others? “Oh, she’s so thin and has such great hair; I’m so dumpy.” “Oh, he’s doing so well, and I’m not. I’ll never be a success.”

The question is not whether you or someone important to you will have to deal with it. The question is how prepared you’ll be when you do. Everyone deals with distortions now and again.  Which means everyone can find a little more enjoyment in life by showing their brain Nazis the door.

So how does it all work? How do you show the villain out?

I’m going to summarize it below, but I’ll tell you right now that the book that saved my life was Feeling Good by David D. Burns, MD. This isn’t positive mental attitude. It’s not neuro-linguistic programming. It’s not the mumbo jumbo of Freud and Jung. This is practical and proven. It is the most prescribed intervention for dealing with these issues in the current medical community. It’s prescribed because it works.

Your Brilliant Appraisal-Emotion System

To understand this, you have to understand how emotions work. As I said before, you’re always monitoring your situation. You hear a buzz and see a rattlesnake on the path two feet away. Your monitor immediately responds. Alarm, adrenaline, increased blood flow–all of that to get you ready to deal with the situation. Your monitor writes “alarm” on your face to communicate it to those around you–to warn and ask for help. This happens in less than a blink of an eye.

But this doesn’t just happen with danger. It happens when we encounter unfamiliar things. When we encounter positive things. You see a great friend who makes you laugh all the time. Boom, your monitor responds. You smile. Feel. Focus. You do so because you not only want to avoid dangers, you also want to seek out the things that make you happy.

Our emotions prepare us to fight, flee, seek, and pitch woo. Our little monitoring and physical response system is brilliant.

But there’s more. We don’t rely on just the automatic subconscious monitoring. We also have a cognitive (conscious thinking) part. Let’s go back to the rattlesnake. You walk out into the garden, step on a slither, and immediately go into alarm mode. Then you look, consciously see the slithery thing is not a snake, but the garden hose. You relax. Laugh.

The quick subconscious appraisals keep us alive, because with snakes and other things, if you’re slow, you’re dead. We don’t have time for thought. If you touch a hot stove, you want an immediate reflex. You don’t want to ponder it for a second or two. On the other hand, the cognitive appraisals help us further appraise a situation. They bring more of our resources to bear on the situation.

How Does the Nazi Get In?

So there are three parts of the appraisal-emotion system: the subconscious appraisal of the situation, the physical response, and the cognitive appraisal. Each of the three parts affects the other two. And when things are running smoothly, we don’t have problems. But sometimes we get a distortion mucking up the works. We make a faulty appraisal of the situation. And therefore have a faulty physical response.

For example, you’re a mother. You’ve had a hard day. The kids make a huge mess with flour in the kitchen. You yell, freak out. When they’re cowering in their rooms and you’re cleaning up the flour, you think, “There I go again. I’m a total failure. I can’t stand it! I never do anything right! I’m a terrible mother.” These thoughts make you even sadder.

And that’s the propaganda. That’s your brain Nazi with his all-or-nothing thinking, telling you that you either perform perfectly or you’re a failure.

But is that true? No, it’s not. You might be a B+ mother, filling the lives of your kids with all sorts of goodness. You might have just had a great time reading with the kids not thirty minutes before. But the brain Nazi tells you to forget that. “Vatch dis film,” he says, “und see de horrors of vut you are!”    

And the all-or-nothing thinking gambit is just one of ten common weapons he uses. Furthermore, this happens so quick that we often don’t notice it. In fact, we’ve often repeated some of these distortions so often than they’ve become almost automatic.

Mr. Nazi, Meet Mr. Bazooka

The good news is that you can pull the lid off the lies. You can open the door, spot the brain Nazi that slipped in, and take him out. You can do this because one of the three parts of the system is our cognitive appraisal. This means you can consciously stop the movie, pin the distortion on the wall, and uncover the truth. Once you do that, it’s like the rattlesnake scenario above—oh, it’s a hose, we realize, not a snake, and the appropriate emotions immediately follow.

But you need to know how to stop the movie. You need to know how to spot the lies. David D. Burns, MD tells you exactly how to do this in his book Feeling Good. (By the way, DON’T get this book confused with his Feeling Good Handbook–you DON’T want the handbook; you want Feeling Good, the book.)  In the book, Burns talks about the theory, the results, and then gets right down to the practical techniques used to blow the brain Nazi to kingdom come.

A few years ago I hit a bad patch with a brain Nazi that had taken up residence. A very bad patch. He’d been there for quite some time. This book and a good counselor saved me. I thank the Lord for that. By the time I went to see a medical doctor to assess whether chemical issues might be playing a role, I was stable. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I had opened the lid and found the villain at the controls. I used the techniques Burns gave me, and I’m happy to say that while the brain Nazi still comes round every once in a while, I can spot him. And I can take that sucker out.

Go to the library and check out the book and take the assessment test. If you, or someone you know, scores in the mild range, maybe you’ve just experienced a very sad event. But maybe you’ve also got a villain in residence. Get the book. Read it. Be happy. Nobody needs to live with a Nazi at the controls.

For Authors

By the way, fiction authors should pay special attention to this stuff. Not because we’re more susceptible to brain Nazis than others, although we do have to deal with our fair share as we develop and share our stories. No, we should because the emotion process is exactly what we’re trying to tap into. Knowing the principles can be very useful indeed. Let me recommend you read the books on emotion listed on the Learning With Pros page.


  1. 1.
  2. 2. (find your state and county and see how many folks are likely dealing with a brain Nazi in your area)
  3. 3.
Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.