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There are some smart people who have this interesting idea about humans and how they think. Here is the idea: we tend to see the world through the stories we tell ourselves about the world. We are story-tellers, and the stories we tell ourselves – about our experience, about what works and doesn’t work, about what’s real and isn’t real, and (maybe most important of all) what is and isn’t dangerous – those stories are the center of our thinking.

That’s a pretty interesting idea. It has a LOT of relevance in our work to changing our anxious thinking from crisis to problem in orientation. Today’s post is about identifying the kinds of stories we anxiety fighters tell ourselves, and what we can do to start and change those stories – take charge of that aspect of our thinking.

It’s the Story, Most of the Time

Story 2

We experience a LOT of stuff every day. We hear conversations, we practice behaviors, we have ups and downs, we experience a range of emotions, we take in information – it staggers the mind how much happens to us in a single day.

Here’s the thing: we don’t consciously remember all of that. A lot of it washes away not long after it happens, at least to our thinking. But some of it sticks – and becomes part of the story we tell ourselves about our lives and what is happening to us.

It’s kinda like playing the game Telephone. Remember Telephone? You sit in a circle of people and one of you whispers a quick story to a neighbor. They whisper that story to the next person, and it goes around the circle until the last person says what they heard out loud. It’s amazing (and often disturbing!) how much of the story changes or gets lost as it goes around the circle…

WHY does some of the story stick, some of the story change and some of the story get lost? Several reasons. One reason is that we don’t tend to remember things that don’t make sense to us. We often simply discard them in our thinking or conversation. Another reason is that we focus on the stuff that interests us or makes sense to us. Still another reason is that we decide what’s MOST important in any situation or story – and assign those important things priority status in our thinking.

Make sense? We are constantly editing and revising the information and experiences we take in as we go through our day. WAIT A MINUTE! This is GIANT. What this implies is that it isn’t nearly so much WHAT happens to us as what we THINK about what happens to us…

Better read that last line again, and let it sink in: this self-story telling, this deciding what to focus on and what it is important, implies that it isn’t nearly so much what happens to us as what we THINK about what happens to us.

Story 1

We’re playing Telephone with ourselves as well. Yikes! That has some pretty big implications for what our thinking can DO to us.

Let’s Try an Example –

I was in a meeting with a business client a couple of months ago. We were talking about a project I was assisting with, and suddenly I could see this client’s face cloud up – she got angry. It was very clear to me. She stopped listening to what I was saying and began furiously typing on her smartphone. Everything had been fine, and now suddenly she was obviously pissed off…

I stopped talking and waited for her to finish her phone typing. She suddenly looked up and said curtly “I’m going to have to pause this meeting. Please wait here.” She got up and left the conference room we were in. I sat wondering what the heck had happened. I reviewed the conversation we’d been happening, looking for a clue as to why she might have become upset.

I decided, based on my experience with her and my own assumptions, that she didn’t like the direction the project would go with my current recommendations, and she was deciding to find someone else to do the work. Then I started getting upset. Why the hell did this person hire me if they couldn’t calmly listen to my suggestions for action? I started assuming that this work would come to an end pretty quickly, and worked to reassure myself that I had other clients and that things would be fine –

But of course I was now engaging Flight or Fight. I sat there, thinking about ways to graciously end the meeting when I could, when she walked back in. “My apologies Erik” she started, looking a little embarrassed. “Our conversation reminded me that I had asked for some information from one of my staff two weeks ago, and I was already irritated with that person for dragging their feet on some other work. I got worked up and realized I had to deal with the situation immediately. I’m sorry we had to stop. Where were we?”

I was caught completely off guard, and had to laugh. I had been playing telephone with myself in a very real way. I took some of the information I had from the interaction (her facial expressions, the way she abruptly paused our conversation, where we were in the conversation) and then interpreted that information in my own thinking, based on my assumptions about the situation.

STory 3

I WAS WRONG. I was telling myself the wrong story – but reacting to it just as if it was the truth. Let’s go back to Telephone. I didn’t understand why she was reacting the way she did, when she did, in our conversation. That didn’t make sense to me, so I started looking for an explanation. I found one based on my assumptions – what DID make sense to me. Some of that triggered some concerns about work and doing a good job, so I riffed off that thinking and built a story around what was happening…

That’s Quite a Story you have there…

Now take my experience and suppose I had started reacting before she had explained what had happened from her side? Suppose she had just come back and said “let’s keep going.” Now I’m worried, I’m a little cheesed off and I’m already planning how to wrap this work up… all based on my inaccurate story of the situation.

So how does all of this relate to anxiety? Well, we’re telling ourselves some pretty intense and powerful stories in our anxious thinking, yes?

Like, for instance, what a particular Flight or Fight sensation or feeling might mean, based on our experience (and our existing story) with that sensation or feeling. Most of us began to experience Flight or Fight (consciously) at the same time we started having panic attacks or some sort of severe anxiety response. We didn’t understanding what was happening, so we started crafting a story (again, unconsciously) about what was happening and what it meant.

When I first had vertigo/dizziness in the middle of my first panic attacks back in Junior High School I had no freakin’ idea what was happening. All I knew was a) I was scared stiff and b) I was having these scary sensations happen in my body. I developed two stories around this set of experiences: one story was that someday it would start and never, EVER stop – and that would be unendurable – and one story was that it indicated that I was going or would go insane, and THAT would be terrible beyond description.

Hey, I didn’t know the story, yes? So I “made up” a story. That’s what humans do – we try to make sense of the world, and we do that with greater or lesser success depending on what we know. I used those stories to scare myself for decades. I told those stories over and over to myself, feeding the anxiety in my thinking and body.

STory 4

Then, when someone (a therapist, a semi-organized toolkit for trying to address anxiety) suggested that my stories were wrong, well, that shook me up. I had been telling those stories for a LONG time – how could they NOT be true? They FELT so true, so accurate – I couldn’t be wrong, could I?

We Have to Start Questioning our Stories

Here’s the really big news in this blog post: we have the power to begin to write new stories for ourselves. I’m going to talk more about that in the next blog post, but in the meantime let me reference the post before this one – we have habits of thought, and those habits can be changed.

That’s a big aspect of the stories we tell ourselves. We don’t usually realize how deep and how steady our stories about our life are – and yet we keep telling the same story to ourselves, over and over again. Then we make ourselves crazy because our lives seem so terrible, or some things seem so hard, or we get so frustrated with how we act and react.

Take heart. We do not have to be the prisoners of our stories – about ANYTHING. It is possible to change our thinking, change the stories we tell ourselves. I know this from my own experience. My terrible stories about what being dizzy and being physically numb when I was anxious were just that – stories. I didn’t have to keep experiencing those sensations, and I wasn’t going to go crazy.

It was very, very hard to see that when I was in the middle of anxiety. But hard wasn’t impossible. Hard was learning to change the story, create new thinking habits. Hard – but I did it. And you can too.

Beliefs 4

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.

Thinking 8

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.

Thnking 6

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.

Thinking 5

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?

Thinking 9

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

Thinking 7

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.

Thinking 10

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?

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