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The stress word is about 90 years old and 30 years out of date.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.
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.
This is the third in a series of articles that teach you a new method on how abolish worry, anxiety, obsessions, OCD, and addictive thinking patterns. In fact, any kind of repetitive, boring, disturbing thought pattern that keeps you enslaved to the Chatterbox inside your Head.
To recap: the four steps in this new method are:
- Change Position
- Change Attitude
- Change Focus
- Practice Mindfulness
I have before written a similar article on this subject called Do You Control Your Mind Or Does It Control You?
In this post I am focusing on Step 1 in the four steps: Change Position
In this step your job is to distance yourself from your thoughts. However ‘real’ they might seem negative thoughts do not in fact belong to you. They have their origin somewhere else – in the conscious mind – ‘Headmind’ – in fact. And Headmind is stuffed full of ideas it has adopted fron other, mostly, dysfunctional, people as well as from mistakes it makes about everyday life and past experiences which it refuses to relearn.
I covered most of these mistakes in my previous article in this series: How to Stop Worrying. But the basic mistake Headmind makes when faced with any challenging situation is to replay old, unhelpful, stories from the past which give you the idea that you are a complete mess. These ‘Headmind tapes’ are like a record stuck on the groove that tell you over and over again that you are facing disaster.
The Change Position step encourages you to see that the tapes are coming from IT rather from you. YOU are not your MIND. Instead, YOU are a sentient, living, emotional person grounded in the moment who needs have no fear of what your mind is trying to do to you.
To make this step work you first need to identify the content of the Headmind tape and I refer you to the previous article in this series in order to get some more help on this. Once you have identified some destructive thinking patterns you are in a good position to identify the tape contents.
These ‘tapes’ are repetitive, conscious, or semi-conscious, ideas which trigger anxiety. You will know they are running because you will suddenly notice that you are getting uptight, frightened, obsessed, panicky or worried. Your job now is to analyse the tape.
This may take some practice and the fourth step, which relates to practising Awareness, is crucial here. I will elaborate more on that step when I get to it but here is a previous article on the subject here. Be aware that these ‘ideas’ may not be thoughts as such. Instead they might take the form of images or self-dialogue which you hadn’t realised (until you practised Awareness) were there at all.
Some common ‘tapes’ include:
- An image of something terrible happening to you
- The thought that you cannot bear what is ‘about’ to happen
- The idea that you are going to ‘pay’ for past mistakes
- Self-talk that you are useless, worthless or otherwise fucked-up
- Flash-backs to past traumas
- Injunctions to ‘get it right or else…’
Once you have identified the crap that Headmind is relaying on to you the next step is simple. And that is change position; to distance yourself from it, treating as something alien to you. A good way to do that is to engage in some self-dialogue:
- The Chatterbox is working overtime today…
- Those stupid tapes are playing up…
- The Control freak is off on one…
- There it goes again…
This step is immediately followed by the next step: Change Attitude, which is closely linked. More on that in the next article.
This is the second in a series of articles which teach you how to eliminate negative thinking.
Bad thinking habits, sometimes known as cognitive distortions, trigger worry, stress, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, depression, guilt, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and a host of other problems.
Treating these problems have attracted lots of books and a variety of methods for overcoming them, including the Linden method and other techniques borrowed from NLP and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). These, and many other approaches, including Dale Carnegie’s 1948 classic ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ provide lots of workable ideas through which you can defeat anxiety. My approach, however, focuses on the core insight that worries, being fantasies, are best ignored. And that you need to be spending less time in Headmind.
As related in my previous articles there are four mistakes that people make around worries and obsessions:
- Getting sucked in by anxious thoughts
- Being frightened by them
- Not knowing what to do about them
- Living too much in the head
The four steps in the method I am explaining in these articles address all four problems.
To recapitulate, these are:
- Change Position
- Change Attitude
- Change Focus
- Practice Mindfulness
Before using the method, however, there is an important preliminary which you need to work through first. Which is to distinguish between Worries and Concerns.
Briefly, worries are fantasies while concerns are problems you can influence.
A worry typically has one or more of these features:
1. Predictions of disaster:
Examples: I will lose my job/have a breakdown/get ill again
Example: I won’t be able to cope
Example: I always mess things up
Example: I am a complete failure
Example: I can’t make any mistakes
Example: I must get it right
Example: It’s all my fault
6. Focusing on the negative:
Example: It happened last week, the month before that, twice last year and again this morning at 10 o’clock
Notice that worries aren’t about anything that has actually happened. Instead they are a kind of nightmare in which it is assumed that anything that can go wrong will go wrong and what’s more will always go wrong (Murphy’s Law may be a joke but quite a lot of people with anxiety disorders treat it as revealed truth).
There is no point in arguing with this kind of thinking as so many cognitive-behaviour therapists believe. Doing that is the equivalent of trying to argue with the psychotic on the street corner who wants you to come and hide with him because the world is about to end. The only thing to do about worries is treat them with the contempt they deserve.
But one reason why even daft worries get taken seriously is that they get mixed up with concerns. And because concerns are real then worries can seem real too.
For example. I might have a concern about this article: namely, that it won’t be readable. Were that the case then there are a number of things I can do about that: read examples of good writing and imitate them, get a friend to check it, use a thesaurus, rewrite it, etc. But the associated worry ‘I will never learn to write‘ gets off on the genuine concern that I am finding this particular article hard work. And so I fall into the trap of taking it seriously.
In this series I am teaching you a four-step method through which you eliminate worries such as these. However, to make it work you first have to address any concerns. Doing that may eliminate the worry all by itself. For example, rewriting this article and getting some good feedback makes the earlier worry sound ridiculous.
Here are a few more tips to help you distinguish between the two:
- If it is a worry it will frighten you; if it is a concern it will focus you
- Concerns foster decision-making; worries foster paralysis
- Worries leave you powerless; concerns alert you to what to do next
- Concerns focus on potential solutions; worries on disasters
- Worries are all about the past and future; concerns are about the here and now
- Concerns have an emotion behind them; worries are empty
- Worries tell you that you can’t cope; concerns tell you that you can
Research shows that at least 10% of the population, at any one time, suffer from an anxiety disorder. But if you take into account the figures for those experiencing stress-related problems – which are clearly related to worry and anxiety – the figures are likely to be far higher. And most of us have problems with negative thinking: gloomy thoughts about the future, guilt over the past, the idea that we can’t cope with the present and obsessions about having to get it all right.
On that subject the National Institute of Mental Health – NIMH – calculates that around 1% of the population in the USA suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – or OCD – (that’s over 3 million people). But millions more are bothered by obsessions about work, about our personal appearance, about our success or failure in life and anything else that might have to do with the Ego. Incidentally, obsessions are also the driver for addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling, about which I wrote in my last series of articles.
I have recently been carrying out renewed work with clients suffering from chronic worry, panic attacks, OCD, negative thoughts and anxiety. As a result I have been refining my method of working with these problems. The next few articles show the way out.
The method comprises four basic steps as follows:
- 1. Change Position
- 2. Change Attitude
- 3. Change Focus
- 4. Practice Mindfulness
For any worry, obsession or negative thought you first change your position to it. Instead of identifying the thought as coming from you, instead you change to seeing the worry as coming from IT – meaning Headmind at it’s worst.
Next you change your attitude to these ‘Headmind tapes’. Instead of getting upset by them you learn how to get bored with them, or to laugh at them, or to treat them with the contempt they deserve.
Then you change your focus of attention, immediately engaging Headmind with something focused, productive, entertaining or calming to do.
Finally, you practice Mindfulness on a daily basis. This could entail Meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Qui Gung, Sensate focusing or a myriad other ways of focusing on Bodymind or on present moment awareness. This isn’t strictly a ‘fourth step’ but a way of making the other three steps easier to practice.
More on this method in the articles that follow.
So stay tuned.
My good friend and collaborator Mark McGuinness recently alerted me to a stimulating new book by Steven Pressfield called Do The Work which is about a subject dear to my heart: how to overcome Headmind when it is messing your life up.
I was doubly intrigued because Steven Pressfield once wrote a powerful historical novel about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae called Gates of Fire – one of the very few books of that kind which had me (and my wife) in tears by the end.
Taking time off from writing fiction Steven’s new, very short, book is about how to achieve your goals when you don’t think you can.
The premise is simple: whenever you work on a project that is really important to you, but which is going to take time, hard work, and personal sacrifice then you are going to hit a wave of resistance. And that resistance comes not from outside but from within; your own personal version of Headmind in fact: doubts, excuses, distractions, worries, whinges, procrastination, or so-called ‘low self-esteem’ – in which Headmind keeps on repeating the mantra that there is no point in your doing anything very much because it is bound to end in failure.
The solution is also simple: just do it. Once you have decided that the project really is important to you then you ignore Headmind when it is trying to do you down and sabotage your goals. Specifically, you ignore the Chatterbox. Or just tell it to shut the fuck up while you get on with things.
Here are some examples from the world of Therapy:
You are working on your recovery from Depression and you have decided to get out more. The Inner Voice says ‘what’s the point?’. Your response: go ahead and call a friend and make that date regardless.
You are working on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and you have decided to increase your morning exercise routine to 10 minutes. Your Internal Saboteur says: ‘you’ll make yourself ill’. Your response: increase it to 15 minutes.
You are working on Anxiety. Your Internal Control Freak says: ‘I worry that you won’t be able to stop worrying because you have been a worrier all your life….’. Your response: you focus your attention on a non-worrisome activity for the next few hours.
One difference between using Steven’s method on creative work, and using it on personal problems is this: in creative work you just get on with the project (for example: your next novel, or work idea, house redesign, etc.). In that way you force Headmind to get on with doing something useful.
Whereas if you are depressed, anxious, obsessional, etc., you may need to give Headmind some substitute activities to do. A good example relates to giving up drug/alcohol/cigarette/ gambling addictions. Whenever the Internal Saboteur twitters on about needing a fix/drink/fag/bet then you just do a 180 degree attention turn and go off and do something more worthwhile. My experience with my clients is that when they do this repeatedly, then over the ensuing weeks that Internal Voice will gradually dwindle away to a whisper.
Image by permission of Fuyoh
The first month of 2011 has come and gone and the statistics show that January is the most ‘depressing’ month, in that more people will seek help for depression than at any other time of the year. As it happens, I have been more than usually busy with depressed clients since the New Year came on; a fact which prompts me to write this article.
First, lets be clear about what clinical depression really is.
In my view, many of the people who are diagnosed by their GP as having depression are not, in fact, clinically depressed at all. Instead, they could be sad, fed up with life, or unhappy. This is one reason why anti-depressants don’t work for the majority. Anti-depressant drugs such as the SSRIs – which increase the amount of serotonin in circulation in the brain – will only work, obviously, if the patient has serotonin depletion, which will only be the case if they actually have clinical depression.
Whether you are depressed, sad, fed up, or unhappy, this article will still apply to you.
Here are the four main causes:
1. Prolonged anxiety caused by negative Headmind thinking.
If you are a habitual worrier, perfectionist, or guilt-tripper then, on a daily basis, your body will become accustomed to very high anxiety levels. Since Bodymind cannot tolerate over-arousal for too long, it will seek to reduce the problem by damping down the system. Typically, this means reducing serotonin (which elevates mood), which leads to the symptoms of clinical depression. In this respect it has been estimated that over 70% of depressed people also have high anxiety levels.
The solution is to change the way Headmind works.
2. The person has developed a ‘hopeless’ mind-set
This problem is typically developed by over-conscientious people who have not learnt how to say ‘No’ or recognise their limitations. The result is that they take on far too many burdens, obligations and responsibilities. Or else they forget to take time out for themselves and keep that crucial work-life balance. One result is burnout.
Depression occurs when personal Headmind reacts to overload by just giving up (a slightly weird response, given that it was faulty thinking that gave rise to the problem in the first place). A common outcome is that the person turns into a victim of some kind.
The most common Headmind defect here is ‘Failure thinking’, which ignores realistic solutions on what to do about overload and, instead, magnifies problems, concludes that there is nothing that can be done about them, and triggers anxiety with the thought that disaster is inevitable. This leads to first anxiety and then to the ‘damping down’ response I described in the previous item.
The solution is to develop a solution-focused, or problem-solving approach to problems. I am in the middle of writing a series on this so please check back for articles on ‘success thinking’.
3. The person has lost her passion for life.
People who have become disillusioned do so as a result of trauma of some kind: the death of someone close, break-up, or departure. Or betrayal, or rejection, by someone they once trusted. Or the usual disasters which befall all of us from time to time but which setbacks the ego will not accept.
In other cases, the depressed person has simply got confused and lost his way. This could be because he has become addicted to trivialities – newspapers, games, television, the social round, internet-surfing, etc. Or is stuck in routine in which one day is more or less like the next, and which becomes a kind of living death. Once Bodymind sees what is happening here it starts to release copious amounts of the emotions known as boredom and frustration. But here is what is strange: when some people notice they are bored they don’t do anything about it. Instead, they read boredom as another sign that life is hopeless. So they stagnate, more and more.
The solution is to reconnect to Bodymind and your passion.
4. Headmind is blocking the release of strong emotions, such as anger and sadness.
A build-up of unexpressed or unresolved emotion leads to a similar effect as chronic anxiety: a dangerous level of over-arousal. Once again, Bodymind tends to counter-act this problem by reducing serotonin.
The solution is to find a way to release those emotions.
If you are not depressed right now but you think you might be going that way, then you can find out more about how to stay out of depression here.
Contrary to common belief many people do find a way to improve their mental health without needing to consult a psychotherapist and some of my articles show you how to do just that. But if you do need assistance then you can contact me over on the psychotherapy website.
Image by pinksherbet