The inevitable conditioning of modern lifestyle makes sure that we are not even aware of something as omnipresent as the humming of an air conditioner — background noise of low intensity — until it stops.
We have somehow learned to live with a certain level of constant discontent, unease, and fear of uncertainty.
As a consequence, all forms of fear — anxiety, tension, stress, worry — has become the socially acceptable form of mental illness.
It has succeeded in desensitizing us to such an extent that we never gather the courage to find out the real reasons behind that constant fear and unease.
There is an unconscious attempt on our part to address this background of Constant anxiety through use and abuse of various stimulants like — alcohol, drugs, mobile, work, food, television, travel, compulsive shopping.
Let’s have a look at this incident :
You are in a supermarket with your four year old. You notice an unbelievable bargain on the latest home theater system that was on your husband’s wish list for quite some time. You don’t want to miss the opportunity to surprise him on his upcoming birthday. There is a lot of rush in the electronic store and you suddenly realize that the tiny little hand of your kid is no longer in the grip of your palm.
You look around but couldn't find any sign of him. Within seconds every possible negative thoughts seem to have inundated your mind. You start imagining the worst case scenarios.
Your rational mind is completely hijacked by this extreme emotion; the signs of which is quite evident in your heavy breathing, excessive sweating, and racing heartbeat.
Framework to understand the components
The incident just goes to show how people, in general, don’t exercise many choices about the way they view situations or how they choose to react emotionally?
As a result, much of the thinking responsible for their unwarranted emotions seem involuntary.
Then how do we unlearn unhelpful habits of thinking that can leave us at the mercy of unpredictable emotions?
Here, I am going to map out the way in which our feelings and associated physiological response affect our assumptions & beliefs; which in turn end up shaping our actions and behaviors.
In fact, they keep influencing each other to such a great extent that differentiating the cause and effect becomes an impossible task.
Since our feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and behavior are so interconnected, the working solution to counter most of the Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) lies in bringing a noticeable change in one factor so as to produce the change in the others.
Once you have basic understanding of all these components, you are far better placed to influence them individually. But before deep diving into the process, we need to first visit the concept of “Conditioning”.
Have you ever heard of how elephants are usually tied down?
It’s not the rope or the stake that prevents the elephant from moving. It’s the conditioning of the elephant from the very young age when they were weak, they were made to believe that they couldn't yank the steak out of the ground. As a result, their behavior gets heavily influenced by these long ingrained limiting beliefs.
It is because of this conditioning that your thinking becomes so spineless and circumscribed that you start accepting things that make no sense and rejecting things that are full of sense.
So how you choose to undo the long-term damage done by conditioning, will eventually help you in course correction.
Now coming back to components illustrated in the above map, here it is much easier to think about the relationships that exist between the different factors.
You might, for example, depict a causal connection between a belief (e.g. ‘Trying to deal with my problems is pointless’) and aspects of your behavior (e.g. procrastinating and watching TV).
However, revisiting the map will help you in realization that this pattern of behavior is linked into other negative thoughts such as ‘I can’t get my act together’ which in turn is linked to feelings (such as embarrassment) that encourage you to watch more TV so you don’t have to expose yourself to the judgement of other people.
Now you have discovered a feedback loop!
Isolating the different elements in a visual form will encourage you to consider links and pathways between them that may have escaped your attention.
You can also easily try out different permutations and combinations by shuffling the elements and connections around until you develop a network that makes adequate sense of your problem.
Finally, because the web of connection and association mirrors the way the brain naturally encodes information, mapping out the system in this way is also likely to cue the recall of new relevant information or facets of the problem that might have been overlooked.
A Story & Learning
To illustrate the process involved in arriving at an adequate formulation, let me use the example of Sam, a 27 year-old IT manager. Sam was with his girlfriend last Saturday.They spent a lovely evening together, but when they got back to Sam’s flat they had some heated argument. The girlfriend left in tears and Sam made a dash to the nearest pub. The next day the girlfriend texts Sam and informs him about the end of their romantic relationship. Sam knows he has a problem with holding on to any long-term relationship. His love life is a catalog of failed romances and unsatisfying one night stands. Coincidentally, all his relationships end in much the same way. So now he is desperate to know whats going wrong.Searching for the emotional shift in order to isolate the relevant feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, Sam knew he needed to pinpoint the moment the problem began to manifest itself. Sam believed the evening had been going well up to the argument with Sarah. ...............................................................But what were they arguing about?
What kicked off the conflict between them?
One moment they were fine, the next they were at each other’s throats.
What had changed? ..............................................................Sam mentally replayed the events of the night before, this time focusing on the way his feelings altered over the course of the evening. He recalled being excited and happy on his way to meet Sarah at the central park. In the restaurant he had felt relaxed and confident in her company, but when they got through the door of the flat something she said turned off all those positive feelings almost as if she had flicked a switch. After that a wave of very different emotions had swept over him: he felt angry and hurt and, as he pictures them sitting there on the sofa, he could also detect echoes of two other emotions — shame and embarrassment. Suddenly, Sam found he could recollect with great clarity what Sarah said that upset him so much: ‘I know it’s your favorite restaurant but maybe next time we could try that new Indian restaurant at Park Street?’
By bringing more objectivity in his attention Sam could see that he had responded quite aggressively to Sarah’s suggestion.
His Actions included:
- Raising his voice initially.
- Glaring at her without blinking or breaking eye contact.
- Announcing that he wasn't sure he wanted to go out with her again anyway.
- Making several critical remarks about Sarah's behavior the day before.
He was also able to recall several physiological responses that had taken place at the same time:
- His heart rate had accelerated.
- He recalled a horrible knotted feeling in the pit of his stomach.
- He had felt ‘light-headed’ and was aware he was breathing quite heavily.
- He could remember clenching his fists and them feeling quite hot and sweaty when he did so.
It seems to be an automatic response to “ I am under personal attack ”.
Jumping to the conclusion that Sarah was criticizing him, Sam felt wounded and reacted by striking back. The anger that rushed through him was part of a natural defense mechanism as his body prepared itself for combat.
It was becoming obvious that Sam was hypersensitive to criticism.
But is this the only interpretation?
After this realization, was it possible for him to respond differently?
- He could stop interpreting everything other people said to him as a personal attack.
- And start building the habit of taking things with a pinch of salt.
- Challenge his Automatic Negative Thoughts with balanced alternative thoughts.
- He could practice relaxation techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing or visualization to calm his body’s fight or flight reactions.
- He could learn to modify his actions, lower his tone and make his body language less threatening.
- He could express his feelings with greater clarity at the time and resolve potential misunderstandings rather than avoiding his anger and letting it build towards an unwarranted explosion.
The framework here is to experience and accept all the feelings — by opening up both the heart and mind so as to contain every emotion without being affected by it.
I know, it’s easier said than done.
But you can always start by replacing the word “should” from your vocabulary.
Should is nothing but denial.
- I shouldn't take every criticism as a commentary on my competency.(Yup…it’s time to start taking everything with a pinch of salt)
- Sarah should have been more sensitive.(Really?…it was all her fault)
- I should start keeping a thought journal.(…but who has stopped you)
Denial is irrational, and irrational beliefs are where negative emotions generally come from. So the first step is to accept reality.
Next time things don’t go your way, don’t deny reality. Accept it.
Then ask if you have control over it. If you do, do something. If you don’t, ask if your beliefs are rational.
Let’s examine this.
- It’s shouldn't be this cold this time of the year.(…but how come you get to decide the weather)
- My kid shouldn't waste his time on gadgets.(hello…they already are)
- I should start exercising from tomorrow.(Really…what’s stopping you today)
The choice remains always with you.
Attachment + Aversion = Anxiety
Is it possible to train your mind in such a way that, it is no longer tied to both sense of attachment and sense of aversion?
Attachment is nothing but mind's desperate attempt to hold onto something and refuse to let it go.
Aversion is equally desperate effort to keep something away and refuse to let it come.
These two are flip-sides of each other and accounts for the majority of your anxiety.
The problem with most of your pleasant experiences is that they all eventually cease. The experiences in itself do not cause any suffering, but your attempt to cling to them expecting that they do not go away — end up making you suffer the hot end of the stick.
Similarly, when you experience any uncomfortable sensation in your body or mind, you want to keep it away.
You often fail to keep both aversion and sensation separate. Once you train your mind to see them as two distinct experiences, then the sensation of pain would finally get decoupled from the feeling of anxiety and suffering.
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it, and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. –Marcus Aurelius.
Explanatory style: We are sum total of all the stories we tell to ourselves
One of the prominent side-effect associated with negative thoughts of any kind is its capacity to make you feel helpless.
- I just don’t have the willpower to stick to a diet plan for weight loss…(so there is no point in trying).
- I don’t have time to pursue my passion project…(so I am stuck forever and I can’t do anything about this).
- I am not a good listener…(and never will…).
And when you keep revisiting the path of feeling helpless again and again, you end up clinically depressed. You feel helpless at life. You give up in a much more holistic way and stop doing anything.
There is no doubt the world we are living can be a harsh place, where even optimists lie to themselves. But if we all stop believing anything can change, nothing ever will.
We need a bit of fantasy to keep us going.
It all comes down to the stories we tell our self. Some of us say
“I’m not cut out for this” or
“I've never been any good at these things.”
“I just need to keep working at it” or
“I just need better tips on form.”
Martin E.P. Seligman, the psychologist who conceptualized and developed the theory of learned helplessness called this “explanatory style,” and it comes down to three Ps: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.
Pessimists tell themselves that bad events
- will last a long time, or forever (I’ll never get this done);
- are universal (I can’t trust any of these people); and
- are their own fault (I’m terrible at this).
Optimists tell themselves that bad events
- are temporary (That happens occasionally, but it’s not a big deal );
- have a specific cause and aren't universal (When the weather is better that won’t be a problem); and
- are not their fault (I’m good at this, but today wasn't my lucky day).
Seligman found that when you shift your explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic it makes you feel better and you become grittier.
Hospital cleaners who saw their jobs as “just a job” didn't derive any deep satisfaction from their careers.
But cleaners who told themselves the story that this was their “calling” — and that their work helped sick people get better — saw their jobs as meaningful.
If you can make your stories greater than your sufferings only then you can make yourself keep going.
The one who knows the “Why” of his existence will be able to bear any “how.”
Being friends with your emotions
And the best part of friendship is you don’t judge your friends. I would like to conclude the guide with this amazing poem.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest houseEvery morning a new arrival.A joy, a depression, a meanness,some momentary awareness comesas an unexpected visitor.Welcome and entertain them all!Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,who violently sweep your houseempty of its furniture,still, treat each guest honorably.He may be clearing you outfor some new delight.The dark thought, the shame, the malice.meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.Be grateful for whatever comes.because each has been sentas a guide from beyond. – Jellaludin Rumi,