Thinking. Thinking is one of those things that most of us assume people just DO – like breathing, or eating, or sleeping. We don’t have to work at it, because it just comes naturally to us. Whoever heard of breathing practice?

Well, of course, that there IS such a thing as breathing practice. Lots of people, anxious and not anxious, are not very good breathers. (Doesn’t that sound wacky?) Too many of us are “sipping” our air – breathing shallow and fast. Too many of us don’t actually stop and take a serious, slow, deep breath – let alone a few of them.

There is a skillful consciousness to better breathing. That applies 1000% more to the skill of thinking. Yup, thinking is a skill – something we can practice, improve on and get better at doing. I could write a whole new blog on JUST thinking skills and practice (and in fact I will, a little later), but today’s post is about one specific way we can be better, more skillful thinkers.

That skill is the capacity to direct our thoughts consciously – to take more control over what we think, when we think it and what we focus on in our thinking.

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Who’s Driving this Damn Thing Anyway???

Let’s start with a simple question: where does your thinking go when you’re not thinking about it? 🙂 What takes up all that neural processing time in your head? If you’re like most anxiety fighters then your brain is busy worrying about SOMETHING. You’re obsessing over how your body is reacting, maybe – what’s happening in your stomach, is your heart beating correctly/”normally”, does this ache mean that you now have a brain tumor, etc.

Or maybe you’re caught up in how your feel – sad, frustrated, angry, lonely, anxious – how those feelings are bad, or terrible, or you shouldn’t feel this way, or whatever is running through your skull. Or maybe you’re obsessing over your failures – how you didn’t do this thing, or how you could have done that thing better, or how different your life would have been if you had only done this thing.

Ugh! Does this ring any bells? Worse, it feels/seems as if this thinking goes on despite your own intentions – that your brain seems to have a life and will of its own.

That can feel especially true when we’re fighting anxiety. One of the things that Flight or Fight does when it’s activated is a desperate combing through all the possible scenarios that could happen in our fearful thinking, struggling to find an answer of some kind to our fears. That’s tailor-made to have our minds race and feel out of our control, since we’re trying to solve a problem as if it was a crisis.

Here’s a little secret: our thinking is largely habit. It doesn’t have to be habit that we consciously chose to have in our thinking, but it is habit nonetheless. And that’s great news, because if it is habit then we can change it – we can start to take control over our thinking.

Brains are LAZY

Really. I’m not making that up, or saying it to be mean to your brain! When I say lazy I really mean that brains are energy efficient – they want to conserve the energy they need to spend to get the job done. As I’ve mentioned in other places in this blog our brains consume upwards of 20% of the body’s total energy output.

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That means your brain and my brain really likes automatic thinking – habits. Those habits take less energy to run. Which means we can develop new habits and our brains will happily run in THOSE grooves, given some practice and effort and patience.

One thing to understand about habits is that they usually have triggers, or cues, that start them running. You know the drill: you pick up your toothbrush to start brushing your teeth and the next thing you know you’re rinsing your mouth with mouthwash – and it’s like you don’t even remember flossing!

Or you get in your car to drive to the store and presto – you’re at the store and don’t consciously remember the drive. That’s the power of habit. But of course you didn’t START automatically brushing your teeth or driving to the store when you first learned those skills. You had to be present and work at it before the habit got “grooved” into your brain.

The other thing to know about habits is that they have some reward or payoff at the end. That doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the BEST reward or payoff – i.e., the most useful to us – but it is still there. Why do we eat the donut when we know we shouldn’t? Because it TASTES GOOD. Why do we brush our teeth? Because it FEELS good to have clean teeth.

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OK, so what do we do with this thinking about changing our thinking?

Creating New Habits of Thought

How about we start with considering what we would like to think about? Well, I have a crazy idea – what about deliberately practicing thinking about the thing that is worrying you right now as a problem instead of a crisis? What would that look like?

You could start with your worry, whatever it is. Sit down with a piece of paper or your computer and write out your worry/fear/anxious thought. Keep it to one thought for the moment – we can do more later. Now, simply practice treating it as a problem instead of a crisis.

Here’s an example: let’s say you’re worried about looking anxious or stressed for guests when they come to your house. (I know a few of you worry about this…) You tell yourself that oh my gosh, what if they think less of me, what if they pity me or put me down in their thinking, what if they tell other people that I’m anxious/needy/a failure/you pick the repetitive phrase you tell yourself.

And that gets the wheels spinning in your head, yes? Worse, Flight or Fight makes it seem imperative that you KEEP thinking about this until you “solve” this problem – only it isn’t just a problem to you, it’s a CRISIS, and you’re freaking yourself out about it. Nope, let’s treat this as a problem instead.

So instead of sitting and spinning in your brain you sit down and write to yourself, or maybe call a friend and talk it through. What if this perception of other people wasn’t a crisis? What if it was just a problem? How would you deal with this if it was just a problem?

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Maybe you start with, well, if this is a problem, what can I do about it? I could ask them to just not come by today. That’s within my power. You probably don’t want to keep doing that forever… but it is one answer to the problem you’re pondering. Just allowing yourself permission to think about this is a step in the right direction.

Of course anxiety wants to take THAT ball and start for the horizon with it, telling you that you’re a loser, that saying don’t come by is a copout, you’re selfish, blah blah blah. But we said one problem at a time, right? OK, so back to those pesky guests coming by. What else can you do?

You could say that you’re not feeling great today, but you’re sure you’re not contagious, so hey, have a cookie. It’s legal to not feel well sometimes, right? Or you could say that you are distracted by some work you need to complete, but you’re working to put that aside and enjoy their visit – just please excuse you if you seem distracted somewhat during your time with them.

Maybe you limit the time the visit takes place – again, with any of the above explanations as help. Remember, we’re just considering options here – I understand that anxiety wants to drag you back to crisis thinking and then obsessing over the terrible outcomes of being anxious around guests. But this is the start of new habits…

As you’re thinking about this issue as a problem also consider what are the rewards of treating this as a problem? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just, for the moment, not obsess over this thinking? Wouldn’t it be nice to be more in charge of your neural energy and time? Do you even WANT to see these people? If so, is there a reward in visiting with them despite how anxiety wants to make you run?

We don’t have to be Unconscious Thinkers

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Another way to tackle this is to change the “what if?” question to “so what?” as you ponder the issue-become-crisis in your thinking. Instead of saying “what if they hate me, what if they think less of me”, etc. try asking “so what if they get upset with me, so what if they think less of me”, and see what happens in your thinking.

(Expect some pushback from your anxious histories – that can sound like a crazy question at first when you’re anxious!)

So it might go like “well, so what if they’re mad or dismissive of me and my anxiety? I can’t control their thinking, and it is crazy talk to think that I can. I am doing the best I can to deal with and overcome this anxiety crap – if they think less of me for that, so be it.”

Remember, we’re practicing dealing with problems converted to crises AS problems. You won’t change that thinking overnight. You’re starting to change your thinking, and that will take time.

Also keep in mind that because this scares you Flight or Fight will stop at NOTHING to make you NOT think about this stuff – trying to divert you, or scare you away, or whatever it can do to get you to stop confronting your fearful thinking.

The mission is to begin to take the wheel from our old anxious thinking habits and begin to create new ones. You don’t have to buy into the new thinking on the first or second or fourth try, any more than you have to execute a dance move perfectly the first time you try it or master a new cooking technique the first time you experiment with it.

Small moves. That’s the work this involves – trying new thinking in small ways, taking baby steps, and expecting that it will be difficult, frustrating and hard in the first efforts.

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One Last Thought on Thinking Before I Go

There’s one more thing I want to recommend in this piece on thinking: thinking on what is good, and useful, and happy, and functional in your life. Anxious habit thinking tends to constantly pull our focus to what isn’t working, how bad we feel, what a mess our life is, etc.

But we’re no more obligated to think that way than we are to obsess over our fears, IF we begin to see thinking as something that can actually, with work and time, be something we have more control over in our lives. So what if you spent 10-15 minutes, one or more times a day, thinking on what’s going OK, what blessings you experience in your life, who brings you joy, what small things touch you, etc.?

Be clear: anxiety, treating problems in your thinking as crises, says holy crap that’s a waste of time, you HAVE to be thinking on all the bad and horrible challenges you’re facing. Pardon me, but bullshit. It won’t kill you (really, it won’t) to spend some time reviewing the good in your life – actively THINKING on it – and practicing different thinking, disrupting the habit of anxious thinking, in the process.

OK. Let’s start those experiments, yes? Hit me if you have questions – either here at the blog or erik.kieser@yahoo.com. There is also a couple of Facebook groups you can check out where I’m hanging with some lovely people doing this work – hit me if you want more information about those.

Now – let’s start taking charge of our thinking – yes?