People with anxiety get stuck in patterns of thinking that don’t help them to move towards a rich, full and meaningful life.
It has become clear that normal thinking processes often lead to suffering. That means usually there are no broken bits of brain that need to be fixed. We’re led to think that any unpleasant, unwelcome thoughts and feelings we keep having must happen because we’re dysfunctional in some way. Maybe they’re caused by some broken bit within us? It turns out however that they’re just the product of normal thinking processes.
When people with anxiety keep trying to find a solution to a problem that is not there, this can add to the mental distress; the simple act of trying to solve a mental problem that isn’t there becomes the problem. I know that this last sentence might cause people to feel uncomfortable. It’s not my intention, I just hope that by the end of this article you can start to have a glimpse that perhaps this is true. This then gives you a different way forward and can give you some hope that your life can change for the better.
If there was something abnormal going on in the brain with anxiety, then scientists would have found it. NOTE: It’s true that in some extremely rare cases anxiety can be caused by an underlying medical disorder like a brain tumour (this is why we recommend you visit your doctor to rule out any underlying medical issue). However, for most people suffering with anxiety disorder it’s because they haven’t yet found a way to respond differently to the normal mental processes that have spun out of control.
You may be wondering about anti-anxiety drugs. Are they useful? Most of them are as little as 30% effective, and the placebo rate can be high. When the medication is stopped, the anxiety often returns. Especially if the person hasn’t learned new skills to deal with anxiety when it arises. Also, many people report that when they’re taking the drugs they don’t feel as if they’re fully present in their own lives.
If you continue down the path of trying to stop, overcome, push away, or argue with these anxious thoughts, then it’s likely that your anxiety will continue. Research has shown that things can even get worse. Asking somebody to try and control their thoughts doesn’t decrease the thoughts – it usually increases them! if I asked you not to think of a donkey for the next 20 minutes, a donkey will pop into your mind because that’s how minds work.
Trying to control our thoughts and emotions is also part of the problem. We have far less control over our minds, feelings and emotions than we’re led to believe or care to admit. If I ask you right now to fall in love straight away with the next stranger you meet, could you do it? Well, no. So, if you can’t even control a positive emotion like love, what chance do you have of controlling negative ones like fear and anxiety? Yes, you want to stop these uncomfortable feelings from controlling you and holding you hostage from your life, but you’ll find out there are better ways to do that than trying to control them, escape from them or push them away.
Occasionally a client or course delegate will say something like, “But my thoughts are real, I HAVE to take notice of them!” When this happens, I might encourage them to look at things from a different perspective. Let’s do this now…
Imagine you were one of the astronauts on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission where the crew nearly died after a catastrophic failure in an oxygen tank. The astronauts could possibly have fixated on distressing thoughts that inevitably flashed through their mind like “There’s a terrible problem about to happen!”, “Our spaceship is broken”, or “We’re all going to die!” as this is what reality looked like for them at that time. However, if they allowed those scary thoughts to take over because they were ‘real’ it would have cost them their life.
If they’d allowed themselves to get caught up in those scary mental scenarios, it would have taken away from the mental focus needed to work with Ground Control, to do just what was needed in that moment to find a way of surviving and eventually getting home. The astronauts were deliberately selected as people who were not likely to get distracted and caught up in their distressing thoughts when problems arose. Hence, their ability to send the famous understated message, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Could your life be improved by not getting caught up in your own thoughts, feelings, and dramas? Even if your thoughts could be said to be true, is it helpful to just get caught up in them? Would you rather learn how to focus outside of yourself and do something constructive about the situation instead? This is a skill that can be learned by anybody if they take the time to learn and practice how to do it.