Anxiety might be common but it isn’t natural. The fact that anxiety rates in present-day Africa and Asia are far lower than in the West points to this as does the fact that it is almost non-existent in so-called ‘primitive’ cultures. It is arousal that is natural and anxiety is largely exaggerated (and malignant) arousal. Anxiety disorders are created when thinking centres in the brain are allowed too much time to dwell on worry, perfectionism, guilt and other wrong thinking habits.
When I graduated as a psychotherapist in 1990 I had been taught a lot of things that were never any use in therapy – watching out for ‘transference issues’ was one of them. I had also not been taught a lot of things that I really needed to know but only found out later. So like most therapists I had to make it up as I went along. But now I have been doing it for 23 years I have learnt a few things I am going to share with you.
Here is my list of seven things that really do work.
The stress word is about 90 years old and 30 years out of date.
Understanding why it is a meaningless word will help you get clarity on what ‘stress’ really means – and how to eliminate it from your life.
Do you have a troublesome or traumatic memory? Or so-called Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome – PTSD?
A common belief is that once you have one of these ‘memories’ then you are stuck with it for life and little can be done about it.
New research confirms that this is not true. if you interfere with the way in which people access these memories you can neutralize them. This is the basis for the EMDR technique which disrupts access to traumatic memories by asking subjects to keep their eyes on a moving finger while trying to recall the trauma at the same time. I must have used this technique countless times and have never yet seen it fail.
When working with clients who have anxiety or depression I ask them to do some hard exercise at least once a day.
My reason for asking that is that I know that exercise improves mood. Several studies show that 30 minutes daily aerobic exercise was as – if not more – effective than anti-depressants in depressed patients. We also know that exercise fosters endorphin release – which counteracts anxiety.
This is the fifth in a series of articles which teach you how to cut out worry, obsessions and any other kind of negative thinking which triggers anxiety, panic, or stress – about which I have written elsewhere – 30 great ways to reduce stress.
In this article we are focusing on the third step in the 4-step method I am showing you.
The four steps are:
- Change Position
- Change Attitude
- Change Focus
- Practice Mindfulness
The third step entails changing the focus of attention away from the obsessive, worry, panicky, depressing, addictive thought and towards another activity that engrosses Headmind attention.
For some people this step can be difficult to achieve at first, simply because they have spent so long listening to their negative headmind tapes that they have been conditioned into taking them seriously and, as a result, they automatically have an anxious/depressive/addictive reaction.
Just last week I worked with a 67-year-old client who, since the age of 14, had reacted to every encounter with a stranger with the tape ‘She won’t like me because I am stupid and don’t know what to say’. Not surprisingly, after 53 years of listening to this stuff, she had a minor panic attack going into any new gathering of people. Over time her anxiety response had become pre-programmed on the lines of:
Meet new people > Listen to tape > Wait for panic attack > Seize up > Give up and go home
This programming can be broken up though and sometimes that can happen surprisingly quickly. However, for most people, breaking the pattern can take time, self-discipline and practice. Bear this in mind when using any of the ideas and techniques below: daily practice is essential. Don’t wait for anxiety attacks to happen to you before working with the four steps; practice on minor worries and obsessions three or four times a day and then build up to bigger ones.
The key to making a change of focus work is that you must select an activity which fully absorbs the Conscious Mind in a way that is more compelling than listening to the worry, obsession, guilt-trip etc. You don’t in fact need a technique to do this, useful as those can be. All you need are your ordinary daily activities.
Here are the most popular:
- Music (preferably loud!)
- Social contact (includes texts/emails)
- Yoga/Tai Chi, etc
- Entertaining DVDs
- Creative tasks
- Satisfying chores
- Games (of any kind)
- Engaging with anyone or anything that makes you laugh
Remember that speed is vital. Do not dally with the thoughts but ignore them and throw yourself into activity. As a general rule, activities that keep you grounded in Bodymind work best, particularly (hard) exercise, dance and laughter.
Some people find that reading books or other intellectual tasks such as research or problem-solving works for them. My experience is that this doesn’t work for the majority because the new focus may not be completely fascinating, thereby giving Headmind space to wander off back to listening to those old tapes again. A similar objection applies to watching TV programmes or doing household chores.
If you are experienced in meditation then that is an excellent way to refocus. If you are new to meditation, or if you are dealing with particularly loud worries and obsessions, then you should use an auditory tape (I provide two for you to use below).
As an alternative to meditation you might consider using a Binaural beat program. I have written about these elsewhere and you can purchase some good ones using the box on the right hand column.
Finally, you could use a relaxation tape or a meditational tape
Here is a short relaxational tape:
And here is a longer, meditational, tape based on sensory awareness:
This is the fourth in a series of articles which teach you how to cut out worry, obsessions and any other kind of negative thinking which triggers anxiety, panic, stress, depression or addictions in you.
In this article we are focusing on the second step in the 4-step method I am showing you.
The four steps are:
- Change Position
- Change Attitude
- Change Focus
- Practice Mindfulness
The key to making Step 2 work is to change your reaction to the negative thought. Typical unwanted reactions include getting upset, anxious, uptight, depressed, panicky or frightened. Others include getting obsessional or compulsive – as happens in many types of addiction in which the individual believes she has ‘no choice’ but to go ahead and indulge. Often, these reactions are so automatic that we are only dimly aware of the triggering thought (or image). That is why it is important to identify the relevant Headmind tape which is triggering the reaction.
We are looking to replace those reactions with boredom, ridicule or contempt.
Consider, for a moment, your attitude to a worry that you don’t have but someone else has. For example:
This plane is about to blow up
I just caught a disease from shaking that man’s hand
The government is spying on me
Unless you are one of the few that take these thoughts seriously your probable reaction to hearing about them will be incredulity. ‘That’s ridiculous!’ you might say to yourself. You might go on to wonder: how on earth do people learn to think like that?
It’s exactly that kind of attitude you now need to adopt towards the negative thoughts you have yourself. Remember that, by definition, all worries and obsessions are a kind of fantasy. They have no bearing on reality at all.
There must be hundreds of techniques you can use to change your attitude to the tapes in your head. I am going to mention just three tried-and-tested routines that work for most of my clients.
The first way is to make the tape (once you have identified it using this article) comical.
Think of someone who is absurd. That could be someone you have met but it could be a film or TV character. Now imagine that the ‘tape’ is being replayed back through that character’s voice in your head. It helps to exagerrate the ideas in the tape so that they sound ludicrous.
Original tape = “It’s all going to go wrong”
Edited tape = “It’s going to be a total disaster”
Homer’s tape: “It’s not only going to be a disaster but you are going be seriously damaged and in need of psychiatry for the rest of your life. “
When using this method it helps to laugh. It doesn’t matter if the laughter sounds forced – just laugh (you can think of something genuinely funny at this point if it helps).
Replaying dismissive remarks to yourself about the ‘tape’ works here. For example;
There it goes again. Really don’t have time to listen to this.
Same old same old rubbish. Time to move on.
This is getting boring. I have better things to do.
You can get aggressive about it, too. Once you identify the contents of the tape you say (out loud if you are on your own) things like:
What a load of crap!
(Anglo-Saxon swear words are particularly useful here as those add force to your new attitude).
In a less dramatic way boredom is often the most effective response to negative thoughts. The reason for this is that boredom, when listening to tedious, repetitive people who talk rubbish is an emotionally intelligent response dictated by Bodymind. Think of the most tedious conversations, school lessons and lectures you have ever sat through. You didn’t bother trying to work out whether there was any sense to what was being said. Instead, your body pressed the ‘OFF’ button and sent you to sleep.
You can use a variation on the first technique here. Instead of replaying the tape using a comical voice you can use the voice of someone you know (or whom you have watched) who is deeply boring. Be sure to edit the voice so that it sounds slow, monotonous and, of course, tedious. You can help the process along by yawning out loud while you are doing this.
A lot of people burst out laughing when they try to do this – a good sign that the technique is in fact working.
The next article concentrates on Step 3 – Changing Focus.