THE FUTURE AS CAUSE OF MENTAL SUFFERING
An alternative reference framework to develop change interventions
Marcelo Manucci. 2019
People define their living conditions through emotions and narratives. The words
of the personal stories are linked to the body by emotions. The creation of mental suffering
is related to the impossibility of renewing the mental landscape that defines the conditions
of life. People suffer from inertia in their living conditions. Suffering is not resolved over time;
it is resolved by changing the inertial conditions of the landscape where a person lives. This
statement implies a different approach to the symptoms, no longer as the cause of suffering
but as the allies of inertia. The change does not imply the transformation of the symptom
but the renewal of the structural conditions of life. The space of approach of this change is
the daily scenes where to identify patterns that make the new impossible and generate subtle
movements to gradually introduce something different in the intimate world of the
individual. In this framework, the focus of change is on the future instead of the past. The
past does not solve the transformation. In order to change the present, it is necessary to
transform the future as a horizon of inspiration that enables something different in the lives
Keywords: emotions, mental suffering, personal change, negative experiences
According to the Gallup Global Emotion study (2019), more than one in three
people in the world said they experienced worry (39%) or stress (35%); and one in five
experienced sadness (24%) or anger (22%) (p.11). This average is higher in countries that are
living conditions of violence, wars, famine, and extreme poverty. The negative rating in these
countries is directly related to their living conditions in their present, except for Honduras
and El Salvador that show the highest levels of positive experiences in Latin America despite
having the highest rates of deaths in the world. However, the United States, without having
these negative characteristics of context previously indicated, shows the highest levels of the
decade of stress (55%), worry (45%) and anger (22%) (Chokshi, 2019, p. 6,7). In this case, the
negative ratings are related to the negative projections towards the future (APA, 2018).
People create personal territories that are expressed through stories, which give
sense and meaning to personal approaching the facts. Each person lives in an explained
world where the timeline (past, present, and future) is recreated in an emotional space; the
present is a story, the past is a set of experiences, and the future is an inspiration.
In this paper, I analyze how people create the mental conditions of suffering on
the hypothesis that suffering related to the oppression or the burden of the present is due
to the emotional weight of the words that define the space where a person lives. Words are
tied to the body through emotions. The body holds the narrative of the present, the
experiences of the past, and the possibilities of the future.
People do not suffer for the past, they suffer because they need to sustain the past
to make sense to their present (in the absence of meaning in the present). Symptoms do
not cause suffering; this is caused by inertia in the individual life. The symptom is only a
signal that expresses the impossibility of transformation; it is an ally of inertia. Although it
sounds paradoxical (in fact, it is), suffering is the way that people find to deal with inertia.
In this sense, I argue that mental suffering is not due to symptoms, but the
conditions of inertia in our lives. These conditions of inertia are not related to the past, but
the frustration of the future. For this, I will analyze the neurobiological conditions that sustain
the emotional framework that defines the space where we live; the narratives that give form
and justification to everyday events. From these perspectives, I will present the symptoms as
allies of the conditions of inertia in the lives of people, and how to approach the
transformation of these conditions from subtleties of intervention.
2. The Neurobiology of Daily Life
Mammals need to set their territory to frame their movements. They delimit their
space by chemical secretion (Gosling & Roberts, 2001). These territorial boundaries guide
their actions (for example, by defending or protecting themselves). People also define their
territory chemically; however, in their case, this reaction is related to emotions.
Emotions derive from an adaptive process which produces a visible change in the
body functions to deal with an external or internal event. According to Scarantino (2016), the
version of emotions as adaptive responses emerges from the works of Plutchik in the 70s,
who define emotions “as a patterned bodily reaction of either protection, destruction,
reproduction, deprivation, incorporation, rejection, exploration or orientation, or some
combination of these, which is brought about by a stimulus” (p. 20).
According to Adolphs and Anderson (2018), “Emotions are internal brain states
that cause observable external changes in behavior; observable internal physiological
changes in the state of the body; changes in other mental states; and changes in what we
are consciously aware of” (p. 30). These reactions are evolutionary survival responses.
Considering these natural processes; it could be said that it is impossible not to feel emotions
because they are automatic reactions of the body that prepare it for a response.
All mammals need to frame their territory to define their actions, but human being
had an evolutionary leap. For mammals, the limits of their territory depend on what their
senses capture. In contrast, for people, the perception of context is related to the personal
interpretation of the situations, the perception of the context that sets the boundaries of the
2.1 Thoughts Create Feelings
The significant difference between people and other mammals is that people
explain the events they address. For that reason, each person lives inside a story about the
facts. What a person faces daily are the explanations of the situations in which he or she
participates. These stories transform an ephemeral emotion (a brain state) into an enduring
mood (a mental state). Therefore, the boundaries of the personal territory depend on two
aspects: the quality of the emotional connection with the facts and the characteristics of the
explanations about these facts.
People are mammals who establish the limits of their territory chemically through
emotions and explain them with stories and interpretations. It is impossible to control the
activation of emotions because it is a survival reaction.
Contemporary neuroscientists agree on five primary emotions evolutionarily
inherited (see Plutchik, 1970; Ekman, 1980; Damasio, 1995). They are fear, sadness, joy, anger,
and disgust. In the scientific literature, some models involve more emotions (see Barsade &
Gibson, 2007). These classifications depend on the articulation of more modern brain areas
that generate what some authors call secondary or social emotions. However, the previous
five are the essential ones.
In the sequence of electrical impulses and chemical reactions that occur in the
brain, some neuroscientists make a distinction between emotions and feelings (Damasio,
1995). The difference is that feelings are emotions associated with thoughts. An external or
internal stimulus activates a chemical response which generates a specific emotion (fear, joy,
anger, sadness, disgust) depending on the type of molecule involved. Parallel to emotions,
thoughts give a mental form to these bodily responses.
The thoughts reinterpret the reactions of the body (Damasio & Carvalho, 2013). In
other words, feelings are mental responses created from physical states that transform
primary emotions into a range of complex mental states such as shame, jealousy, guilt, pride;
and over time, generate enduring traits such as optimism, calm, tension, worry.
The chemical reaction of the body always produces the same emotions, but
emotions do not always generate the same feelings. Feelings result from interpretations of
that body chemistry. Emotions emerge from the body; feelings arise from the mind. In this
sense, feelings involve a set up a set of simultaneous processes: the stimulus that generates
reactions in the brain, the chemical reaction of the body, and the ideas that accompany this
In this gap between emotions and feelings the personal history of each person
appears. The brain circuit to generate an appropriate response is the same as that of the
neurobiological structure; But, in what way it has been inscribed in the personal brain: with
what intensity, with what stimuli, with what functionality depends on personal experiences.
2.2 The Inherited Threat
The explanations of circumstances can change the chemical reactions of the body
(emotions). Similarly, emotional responses can change interpretations (meanings) of the
events around us. Thoughts can change chemistry, as well as physical activity in the brain
(chemistry) can modify an idea (Gazzaniga, 1989).
The team of the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner (2016) from Columbia University
developed research where they scanned the brains of people while observing photographs
of faces expressing a broad range of emotions. The scientists found that the emotional
centers of the brain related to the feeling shown in the pictures were immediately activated
in the participants. They reported that the emotional management centers of the brain were
automatically activated in the volunteers telling the stories about the personal experience
with images of faces with tears, people told stories of sadness or suffering. So, they feel
connected and identified with these feelings. In the subsequent session, when the
participants described their experiences about the images of people who were crying, the
researchers invited them to think other less threatening arguments (for example, a woman
could not only cry for a death, but there could be different feelings related to a wedding, a
graduation, a desired pregnancy). These responses were also scanned observing that
changing the story of the experience, the emotional centers of sadness were deactivated,
and other circuits of reflection were activated in the brain, which transformed the meaning
According to another study of psychologists William Cunningham from the
University of Toronto and Alexander Todorov from Princeton University (2015), the most
optimistic people do not ignore the threats. It is possible that these people are more sensitive
to recognize the good things (positive features) in each situation. These statements arise
from a similar investigation to that of Ochsner. In a laboratory, they showed a series of
images to volunteers while recording the activity of emotional centers using functional
magnetic resonance. The images represented a variety of emotions (positive, negative, or
neutral). What the researchers found is that the negative emotions were activated
automatically in the participants. Activation of positive emotions occurred when researchers
intentionally asked participants to focus on positive aspects.
Psychologists argue that people have a bias of evolutionary negativity; a tendency
to focus on the threats that the brain has as a biological survival alarm. That is, to recognize
the bad, we are biologically alert, to recognize the positive, it is necessary to make a little
mental effort (p. 848).
Fear is a primary emotion. It is possible to find the roots of states of alertness in
the primitive ancestors in times and contexts where distraction caused death. The brain
emotionally highlights specific experiences to keep these memories in the case that these
bodily responses are necessary for other situations in the future. This process allows
effectiveness related to the unconscious speed of actions and also provides efficiency in the
use of biological resources to sustain these behaviors.
Throughout the evolution, the human being has marked the territory emotionally
for reasons of the effectiveness of decisions (speed of movement) and efficiency (using fewer
biological resources). This process has resulted in a brain very attentive to the threats (real
or fictitious); this learning has allowed human beings to remain alive when there is not much
time to think.
Nowadays, science understands how these survival circuits work. However, these
biological responses are displayed individually in the reference map of each person. This
survival process is common to all mammals. From a biological perspective, the reaction to
threats is as automatic as breathing or as other reflex acts. Even so, in people, this alarm
calibration is due to their personal history.
2.3 The Randomness of Pessimism
The brain addresses reality from neural patterns. The brain designs its version of
reality to survive (Gregory, 1997). Facing the disruptions of daily lives, the first thing the brain
does is to quickly illuminate the established networks to adapt the unknown stimuli to the
stereotypes of the brain. The exponential multiplication of the novelties of life disturbs the
stability of personal narratives about life. In the act of observing, the diversity of phenomena
merges into personal experiences supported by emotions, ideas, perceptions, and habits.
This intimate landscape becomes fragile facing uncertainty.
The neurobiological record of the new has a sequence that starts from the contact
with specific stimuli that activate the detector neurons, which transform the unknown into
signals that are distributed to other neurons. These neurons exist in large numbers
throughout the nervous system, and each of them processes many inputs that are then
distributed in outputs to other. Neurons receive stimuli, classify, filter, and transmit them to
other neurons, which collect, process, and distribute them (Martin, 1994).
The brain is a cooperative system (Satinover, 2008), where each neuron is a
member of large networks through associated interactions. The meaning of everyday events
arises from global states of the brain resulting from a network of simple components that
communicate on a local scale and create complex interconnected structures (p. 269).
The new stimuli activate images, emotions, and ideas through neural networks that
light up together and generate a specific meaning about the events. The connections
between the neurons of the brain are initially random. The implications (interpretations,
effects, causalities) that a person gives (attributes/associates) to the facts are not pre-existing
to personal experience. Only through repetitions do neural networks create specific
The brain records the stimuli as signals with different intensity levels, which neurons
consider as levels of importance (the higher the intensity of a signal, the more important).
Depending on the strength of a signal, the neurons strengthen some stimuli and discard the
influence of others. In this way, the nervous system learns which signals are the important
ones to improve the connections and which of these should be read as noise, which is not
necessary to process and distribute. The repetitions of the strong signals, that initially were
series of random connections, set the neural pathways which consolidate the experience.
Brain do not store detailed information, but fragments of data, emotions, and
images that later a person recovers as global meanings. When an individual remembers an
experience, neural networks are activated, and the global sense is reconstructed biologically.
Therefore, dealing with new situations, uncertainty appears when there is no
correspondence between external phenomena and internal networks of signification. The
disturbances of new events generate a knowledge gap that leads the brain to reconfigure
or create new networks to signify these new stimuli.
Neurons are chemically connected cells. The type of chemical component that
connects them defines the emotional characteristics of networks of meaning (meaning
networks). The higher the emotional charge, the higher the segregation of chemicals that
reinforce the connection between the cells. The emotional dimension of experience
strengthens the neuronal links, which lead to the perdurability of the networks.
Experience is a creative act that is woven in these neural networks. The hidden
paths of the intimate map are held in complex networks of neurons that weave the invisible
web of individual experiences. This creativity of the experiences is not a new concept. The
psychologist Frederic Charles Bartlett, the first professor of experimental psychology at the
University of Cambridge, devoted much of his work to the investigation of the distortion of
memory since the first half of the last century and defined the pioneering studies on the
creativity of the memories (Bartlett, 1932). By studying the stories evoked by their patients
with memory disorders, he found that these were shorter and coherent, showing a
reconstruction of the original. These observations led him to suggest that explicit memory
(specific events of personal life) is a creative process. The memory is not a faithful
reproduction of the original information. By contrast, the representations of past experiences
serve as signals that help the brain to reconstruct an experience of the past in a scene of the
3. The Virtual Territory
For biology, making efficient decisions involves less effort than making decisions
freely (Golberg, 2001). This characteristic is because efficient choices arise from patterns that
work unconsciously (therefore, they require fewer resources). The problem is that automatic
decisions may not be the right decisions for a certain moment.
Emotions are primarily responsible for the image of the landscape. Each person
defines the limits of the places through a chemical process and explanations about the
characteristics and possibilities of these contexts. People need to explain to themselves the
world around them to be able to withstand the emotional impact of their living conditions.
Therefore, they live inside their explanation of reality and decide based on these personal
narratives of facts. For that reason, sometimes, personal choices intend to force and sustain
the description of the circumstances instead of resolving them.
People deploy explanations that accommodate characters (the good ones and the
bad ones), calm disturbing emotions, and justify their feelings. They defend these narratives
because they are a protective shield which allows us to face different situations. In this sense,
people look around for elements that confirm their stories, and they choose perceptions
that fit in their explanations.
People stick to their narratives to preserve the emotional connections (chemical
dependence) that are the primary reference for behaviors. People protect their explanations
of reality beyond the truth of these interpretations because self-deception is less emotionally
traumatic than disappointment. In other words, disappointment is more traumatic for our
emotions than to accept the disillusion of our own story. Thus, people prefer to safeguard
the narratives based on their explanations instead of risking other possible narratives. The
chemistry of the new, many times, is intolerable for people. That is the reason why they
prefer to stay in the chemistry of the past. This state, though in a fictitious and often painful
way, is a safer place than the uncertainty of discovery is.
People are creators of meaning, set the boundaries or their territory with definitions
what they feel
what they see
. Framed in these prejudices, they assume that this
perception of reality is what happens. Facing the multiplication of volatile situations, the
anxiety generated by uncertainty becomes a cycle that feeds of confusing and ambiguous
ideas which enhance the feeling of uncertainty and create more tension. As a result,
unknown situations become a feared context.
3.1. The Precariousness of the Future
The metaphor of life as a machine has had a profound impact on the way that
everyone relates to phenomena (Zohar, 1989). From this mechanical perspective, time is
experienced as an arrow that drags everything in its path. This overwhelming force leaves a
person with no possibility to reconstruct his or her experiences towards the past or create
new options to transform their future. The impossibility of changing the present stems from
the fact people live pendulously between an irremediable past and a disappointing future.
The oppression appears when the past becomes the future for a person. However,
oppression is not caused by time; symptomatic living conditions occur when people are
trapped in a closed landscape that prevents them from facing new circumstances. People
do not suffer for what happened to them in the past; they suffer because they need to
sustain the past to make sense of the present. People became trapped in the present due
to the frustration of the future in their lives.
The future defines the inspiration that gives meaning to personal daily life. It is
unlikely that something new can happen in the life of a person without an inspiration that
holds it. Precariousness can have different manifestations: people lose the inspiration of their
lives (due to desperation or bewilderment); what inspired them ceases to make sense (they
live in a dull and superficial stability), or people cannot sustain their inspiration (they shut
themselves up in resignation and resentment).
In the absence of the future, the past orders a present. However, the past is not
the culprit of personal destiny. Helplessness, oppression, or suffering are not due to time;
personal experiences cause them.
3. 2. The Function of Disfunction
Biology influences personal decisions and behaviors. In the case of emotions, this
influence is expressed in two movement orientations. One moves people towards what they
like, as they are hoping to obtain satisfaction or pleasure; the other direction takes them
away from what scares them to decrease the risk of suffering (Anderson, Bechara, Damasio,
Tranel, & Damasio, 1999). These two orientations support two kinds of behaviors: the
expectation of rewards (approach) or the fear of punishment or pain (move away)
first case, the rewards generate enthusiasm, curiosity, and creativity because they extend the
pleasant feelings. In the second case, the avoidance of the risk of suffering lets people
maintain a safe distance from the facts.
The oppression of life is due to the blocking of these extreme behaviors. So, a
person is imprisoned of rewards or threats from everything that surrounds us. When
oppression invades personal moods, behaviors are reduced to a set of compulsive decisions.
When life needs more response options, and a person only has one answer, a symptom
sustains this inertia.
The power of the symptoms will depend on how much people need them to
maintain the inertia in their lives. Instead of expanding the response options, a person invents
a reality that fits in their narratives to which it remains clinging.
The function of symptoms is to maintain the permanence of the living conditions
(in the past) without structural modifications (to deal with the new present). This situation
represents the paradox of the symptom. On the one hand, it makes life more painful
(dysfunction), but it also allows the benefit of inertia (function).
The difficulty of people to transform their intimate maps to face new life conditions
generates dysfunctional structures that sustain (as a prosthesis) a fragile dynamic of
interaction with reality. Therefore, inertia is an ally of vulnerability to change. The impossibility
of considering something new in their lives is a way of sustaining inertia. The dependence
on the dysfunction is proportional to the function that it fulfills in an inner world. The strength
of the symptoms depends on their importance as structural support. The risk of these
dysfunctional allies is that the symptom will define the direction of personal lives if there is
no transformation of this vulnerability.
People do not suffer due to the symptoms; they suffer from inertia in their lives.
The symptom is a manifestation that shows the weakness of the personal world to face new
realities. A symptom is a knot that keeps a person tied to stereotyped patterns of response.
In the classical concept of disease, symptoms appear due to an external episode or an
internal situation. In both cases, the causes are in the timeline. However, symptoms are
simple signs (not the reasons) of the vulnerability of a person.
4. The Subtleties of Change
The past is a set of experiences that are recreated in personal scenes of the present
(real or mental). A scene is the representation of a sensitive episode, limited in time and
space, where certain characters develop their script. It may be an episode of its own or not.
What is important is the resonance of that moment in the personal inner world.
People participate in everyday scenes with a set of historical references that frame
that moment. These references are hidden subtleties behind the visible elements that define
the experiences. The experiences of the past are supported by subtleties hidden in the
scenes of the present.
Change is not a linear process, like doing something and getting something. This
process is a manipulation. A planned process of manipulation does not promote healthy
transformations in the conditions of life. Many times, people try to change the scene with
new characters, new things, new roles, new emotions (manipulating the visible aspects of
the stage). They also attempt to transform the stories looking for other explanations, other
justifications, new reasons (manipulating the features of the second dimension). However,
modifying the elements and the words do not lead to changes.
The goal of the transformation is to create new rules of life. In this sense, the
process of change requires a broader approach than that of the symptoms because they
are functional factors of the people’s vulnerability. In this sense, it is important to
understand what is behind the sensitive personal scenes to transform the experiences that
frame the past. Addressing these subtleties behind intimate scenes will allow a person to
transform the experiences that frame his or her history.
The strategy of subtleties seeks to generate small interventions in the dimensions
that hold some scenes. The objective is not to focus exclusively on the visible elements.
Instead, subtleties deal with the whole scene, in perspective, seeking to transform the
conditions that sustain the personal experience, not only the disturbing aspects of the scene
or the arguments that cover the experiences.
To display subtleties in personal life is necessary to amplify small transformations
in intimate scenes. It is necessary to create small movements and try to sustain them in time.
The first step of approaching a scene is the identification of what resonates
intimately in a scene. These sensitive points can be emotions, memories, positions, roles,
feared actions, among other things. They are signs that show where experience is tied.
Secondly, it is necessary to generate subtle interventions on these points,
something different without being very challenging or disruptive, something unusual to test
other possibilities, for example, new words, new behaviors; other feelings, roles, and new
connections with other people.
Finally, it is necessary to get feedback about the result of these small movements.
It is necessary to check the effects of the small interventions, listen to the comments of
reliable people, recognize other people's opinions. People can use this feedback as a mirror
to shape and amplify the subtleties.
The change fails when people only look for the change. In other words, the change
fails because it seeks to silence the symptoms. However, symptoms are signs of a blocked
personal landscape that does not allow something new. When personal stories transform
the past into inspiration, the symptoms allow the impossibility of new realities in the lives of
Symptomatic conditions of inertia are not a result of a battle with an external
enemy or a traumatic situation from the past. On the contrary, the inertia expresses the
vulnerability of the personal landscape to allow something new to transform the conditions
Symptoms are visible elements of an invisible weakness. The classic conception of
suffering states that if we remove or change the visible elements that cause suffering, the
personal living conditions would change. Nevertheless, the visible features are not what
cause our suffering, but it is the invisible subtleties that sustain certain conditions of life.
The symptom expresses the inertia of personal landscape facing new conditions of
life; it represents the impossibility of dealing with the future in the present. The problem is
not what happened to us in the past, but the problem is why we need that answer in the
I have summarized an exploratory conceptual study that allowed to describe the
conditions of suffering as a subjective construction of the people who leave them tied to the
past. Therefore, the focus in the past would reinforce those conditions of suffering. I have
presented the theoretical foundations of the initial hypothesis that suffering does not
depend on the past but the frustration of the future. The objective of this paper study is to
create an alternative conceptual frame of reference to approach suffering and change from
The causal studies that emerge from this hypothesis could address three axes: First,
the relationship between the frustration of the future and inertia as an impossibility. Second,
the role of the symptom as allied to that impossibility. Finally, an application on laboratory
groups would be feasible to address the effectiveness of subtle interventions as an
alternative framework for a process of personal change.
©2019. All Rights Reserved. 64906475
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