Often, the idea that you can stop your anxious, worry thoughts on command and just think positively instead, seems an impossible task. It’s so frustrating to be told to just forget it and get over it. You just can’t! And you are right. When no one has told you what’s keeping you stuck, it is virtually impossible to stop those spiralling worry thoughts.
This is because, once you are focussed on a problem or worry, the Stress Response is triggered, and your mind and body will keep your attention locked onto that worry until the problem is resolved. In order to survive when your life is threatened, you are designed to give that threat your undivided attention until resolved, and you will not be allowed to distract yourself onto more pleasant topics.
This simple truth can give rise to the experience of looping, repetitive, worry thoughts, without any escape route. But there is a simple trick that gives you back control and then you can easily choose a better thought (and feel a better feeling) if you so decide.
Mark Twain –
‘I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.’
When your thoughts turn to worries and fears, it triggers an automatic emotional and physical stress response in the body. What is happening is that as your mind listens to your thoughts and believes that there is a looming threat, it triggers the release of stress hormones in the body that we feel as fear or anger. The changes that happen in your body give you extra strength to run away or stand up for yourself and fight. Your reactions are fast and your eye sight, sense of smell and hearing are enhanced. Your breathing and heart rate increase to supply the extra burst of energy. This is normal, healthy and actually a very good thing.
When your Stress Response is working properly that is a good thing.
If something is a risk to your life, such as a menacing bull charging towards you, you really should feel the fear, run as fast as you can and get out of the field. ( Don’t stop to pick the flowers. ) Or if you are being unreasonably treated, feeling the anger will motivate you to act to put it right, rather than let people trample all over you. It would probably be best to try diplomatic dialogue first rather than risk hurting your knuckles or vocal chords! (Wars may rage, but it is always peace talks that finally end them.) Anger is very useful as it tells you that your rights are being abused, and empowers you to take effective action to defend your rights.
Notice that the fear or anger switches off when the threat is over, and immediately the healthy Relaxation Response is restored. Your focus of attention is no longer hijacked by the fear brain and you can choose what you want to think and focus on.
When is the Stress Response not working properly? The problem is that, unlike animals, humans have the capacity to think, and can think about past problems and future potential problems. So we can end up fooling our mind into believing there is a present problem, when actually everything is ok at the moment. Think about it. The Stress Response is designed for instant application. It’s about action. If you don’t need to physically protect yourself right now, you don’t need it. And when you don’t need it, it feels very uncomfortable and you might need to run it off or punch a cushion!
Your mind does not know the difference between something actually happening now in your reality and something that you are imagining. It responds to either in exactly the same way. As you just think about a problem, your body is triggered into the Stress Response, as if it’s happening now. You are then programmed to keep focussing on the problem and working out how to resolve it/avoid, it until it is over. You are actively prevented from thinking about anything else until the mind believes the ‘danger’ is over. In fact fear is often said to make you stupid as you can’t think logically or even comprehend what someone is saying about something else. You are however absolutely brilliant at thinking up ways to avoid the feared object or situation!
Once the mind perceives that the emergency is over, it will shift from producing stress hormones to producing relaxation hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin. These positive hormones whizz round the body in seconds, neutralising the stress hormones and restoring balanced relaxation. Your system is no longer in emergency stress mode, but is returned to the healing relaxation mode, which should be our normal state most of the time. Most importantly, thoughts are no longer riveted on the problem, so now you are able to focus on other things and think rationally and logically about them.
This return to a natural healthy balance happens very quickly. You might have experienced it yourself. That sudden panic as the fire alarm goes off, and then you realise someone has just burnt the toast.
So now you know that negative thoughts will grow and build and loop on each other, building increasing stress, until your mind understands that the danger is over.
“It’s not the situation that’s causing your stress, it’s your thoughts”
But if you are locked into problem focus, how can you break out of the loop of negative thinking?
Here’s the trick. When you are triggered into the emergency response, you do not have conscious control of your focus of attention and thinking, but you CAN take conscious control of your breathing. If you breathe as you would when you are relaxed, you begin to activate the relaxation response, which means you take back control of your thoughts. ( See Blog HOW TO FILL UP YOUR LUNGS AND RELAX.) Now you can think rationally and choose to reassure yourself that you are ok, there’s no danger, you’ve got this, or shift your focus onto something more positive. Break out of the loop by convincing yourself that all is well. You are safe now. IT’S OVER NOW.
“When you change the way you think about things, those things change”
Interestingly, when people’s feared experience actually happens, they often say it wasn’t as bad as they had imagined. This is because, when imagining a feared situation, the worst peak moment is usually the main point of focus and it’s never all over! If the feared experience happens in reality, the peak moment moves on, unexpected resources come to your aid and the story comes to an end. IT’S OVER NOW.
As well as relaxed breathing, try imagining a future time with the problem solved, even if you can’t imagine how that would happen.
“Breathe, relax, think a better thought, feel a better feeling and tell yourself a better story.”