Dialing Down Anxiety

rough waves on coastal shore

 

There is little debate that most anxiety is a symptom of internal cognitive/psychological machinations. That is, we are thinking in a way that is generating the anxiety. We think in both mental pictures and internal dialogue and depending on what we are telling ourselves, and what we are seeing, we may generate irrational anxiety. We often do not hear what we tell ourselves, or see those internal mental images, consciously; but they nevertheless exist as a subconscious process and have tremendous power over our moods and emotions. As an example of just how powerful our mental imagery can be, imagine sucking on a lemon rind. You may find yourself salivating, from nothing more than a mental image, an imagination. Anxiety too is a chemical response produced by imagination. Those imaginative images in our mind may not be true at all, but they nevertheless produce neurochemicals – and anxiety.

Since imagination can produce anxiety, it is reasonable to assume it can also minimize or reduce anxiety. So, the following is an exercise using imagination in a way that may help diminish anxiety responses when they arise. You may need to practice this exercise initially while not anxious to get the hang of it. But, once you are familiar with it, you can do it easily at the onset of anxiety.

Imagine a dial; a large dial with a movable needle pointing to a scale between 10 arcing to the left and 0 arcing to the right. In the middle is 5.0. Imagine increments from 0 beginning with 1 and then 2 and then 3….up to 5. From 5, see the dial’s increments divided even more definitively, such as 5.5 to 6 to 6.5 to 7. From 7 see it with even more divisions such as 7.25, 7.5, 7.75, 8, 8.25, 8.5, and 8.75. And then from 9, it goes 9.1, 9.2, 9.3, and 9.4 up to 10. Imagine this dial in detail with color and texture. You can make the needle and the numbers any color, and any texture, you like. Develop a mental picture of this dial and become very familiar with it. 10 represents very high anxiety/panic levels. 0 represents extreme relaxation and calmness.

At some time when you are most relaxed and comfortable, visualize this dial and note where the needle is pointing. Perhaps it is pointing to 2. This is a calm and relaxed state and the anxiety meter is indicating such. As you see the needle at the 2 level, note what you are feeling in your body. What does this level feel like? Let this feeling flood over you…really FEEL it.

The next time you feel anxious, visualize this dial and note where the needle is pointing. Perhaps it will point to 7.75 on your anxiety meter. Then, because it is YOUR imagination, you can lower the needle to 7.25 and then 7.0 and then 6.5. Each time it lowers a notch, take a deep breath. Slowly, you can bring the meter down to a 5 and maybe even a 4. As the meter gets closer to the 2 level, the calm and relaxed feeling associated with that level will increase, as the anxiety level associated with 7.75, or wherever you may have placed it during an anxiety attack, will decrease.

The key to success with this method is to focus on the dial and seeing it move slowly downwards notch by notch taking a deep inhalation and exhalation of breath with each movement to a lower notch. If the mind is focused on the imagery of the needle moving to lower numbers, it won’t be able to entertain the irrational imagery and internal dialogue generating the anxiety…and the anxiety will diminish, as the needle moves down to lower numbers.

It certainly cannot hurt to give it a try; it is simple, safe, non-medicinal and free.

Are You In Need of Eustress?

iao stream

 

Eustress is good stress. It is a term coined by Dr. Hans Selye, a Canadian medical doctor, in the 1950’s. We often think in terms of stress as being bad as in “I’m all stressed out.” But, if we had a life of no stress at all, we’d be bored, lethargic, unmotivated and apathetic. We need some stress in our lives. We might say that good stress, eustress, is the “spice in our life.” Of course, some people prefer more mild spice whereas others may like it hot. Each person has their own threshold for their optimal level of stress. What is eustress for one person could be “distress” for another. Distress is the word used to represent those pressures, tensions and strains upon us that can make us ill; it is the “bad” stress.

Stress, either eustress or distress, is not entirely caused by external situations such as pressures on the job or conflicts in the home. Stress is caused as much, or more, by how we interpret our situation. Still, if we are experiencing distress, we are likely not happy, healthy or performing are our best. Some of the symptoms of distress can be moodiness, irritability, depression, insomnia, excessive worry, poor memory, feeling overwhelmed, loss of appetite, decreased sex drive, substance abuse and pessimism. Though these symptoms may be caused by problems other than distress, they are, nevertheless, signs that something is not quite right.

If you are experiencing distress and telling yourself you need to get rid of or reduce your stress, perhaps that is not the best approach. It’s difficult, if not altogether impossible, to visualize a negative. It works a lot better to visualize a positive, which would be to increase the eustress in your life. What does that look like for you? What is positive stress for you? Stress reduction methods are important, such as relaxation techniques, watching a pleasant movie or something as simple as a walk in the park. But, those are not necessarily eustress activities. Eustress activities are stressful; they add some tension and pressure to our life. But, they are fun. They are exciting. They are uplifting.

Some activities that can generate eustress include: learning something new, engagement in a meaningful project, travel to a new place, meeting new people, stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. Of course, all of these can generate anxiety as well. However, anxiety and excitement are very similar. Physiologically, i.e., the body response such as sweating, increased heart rate, faster breathing, etc, it may be difficult to distinguish between anxiety and excitement. What makes a situation anxiety producing or exciting has a lot to do with how we interpret the event. Just understanding that stress can be positive and healthy, that we actually need some stress in our lives, can transform what we was distress into eustress. And, of course, the amount of stress we subject ourselves to is important. Eustress can become distress if it is prolonged. Exercise is a good example. A one-mile walk can be eustressful; but, if it should become a 10-mile walk, it may become distressful.

Stress management is part of our overall health maintenance. It is a topic of considerable importance in the medical field, as well as in business, for we all know that stress causes both physical and mental health problems. But, let us remember that we don’t want to eliminate stress. We want to keep our distress down, and our eustress up.

Three Brains, Two Choices: Some Thoughts on Decision Making

Kaenae Peninsula

One moment. A fraction of a second. That’s all it takes to make a decision when all three brains are in agreement. You’ve experienced it yourself, many times. You’re about to walk across the street and see a car coming and you stop. You slam on the breaks of your car to prevent yourself from hitting the car in front of you. You see the child about to touch a hot stove. You act. Immediately. A decision is made. Sometimes, however, decisions don’t happen quickly. They take some time. There may be competing interests, lack of information, conflicting emotions about what course of action to take. And sometimes, decisions though not rapid, are made with relative ease and without much obstruction or confusion. And, of course, there is indecision, which invariably ends as there is tremendous energy, and intelligence, behind decision making. So, indecision doesn’t last too long even if it is some external situation or circumstance which prompts the decision to be made.

All decisions can be broken down to one of two choices. Even the most complicated decisions one makes are predicated on the first of two choices: yes or no — do it or don’t do it, proceed or don’t proceed, green light or red light. Depending on which choice is made, sequential decisions and actions are built. For example, the decision to eat dinner is first a yes or a no and from there, assuming it is a yes, decisions about time of dinner, place of dinner, content of dinner, etc, etc…can take place. If the decision is no, then a whole different sequence of decisions and actions emerge. In some respect, we are constantly making decisions throughout the day.

Decision making involves all three of our brains. To say we have three brains is somewhat misleading…but, it is also somewhat accurate. Certainly the brain operates as a whole unit. It is an incredibly complex system of neuro-chemical, bio-electrical program structures. However, there are three recognized general areas and functions of the brain. What is often referred to as the reptilian brain or the animal brain is here referred to as the Biological Brain. It is the core of the brain and the brain stem. Here is found the seat of our most basic physical functions and drives. It is this part of the brain that is considered to be “hard wired.” That is, the program structures which regulate behaviors arising out of this part of the brain are pretty well fixed; breathing, digestion, circulation and survival instincts would fall into this category. On top of and surrounding the Biological Brain is the Emotional Brain. Here we find, of course, the seat of our emotions. These program structures are less fixed and more “plastic” meaning that adaptation to relatively current situations is not only possible but feasible and often necessary. But, this part of the brain does generally not adapt rapidly. Months and sometimes years are required to notice changes in our emotional life. Experiences of depression, social anxiety, traumatic stress and irrational fears would fall into this category. The outermost brain, and the newest in terms of evolutionary development, is the Social Brain. Often referred to as the neocortex, this is the most “plastic” area of the brain, the most capable of learning and adapting and changing. This part of the brain can, and often does, change in the blink of an eye. This part of the brain is the seat of reason, logic, language, sequential thinking and planning. It is capable of mathematical formulations, symbolism and abstract art. And, here too we find two highly developed hemispheres with their respective functions. The left and right hemispheres of the brain have distinctive functions and are inctricately connected and coordinated by a part of the brain called the Corpus Callosum.

The Social Brain can become easily swayed by the Emotional Brain and often decisions which one knows are not reasonable or logical, are made anyway. The energy, the intensity and power of the Emotional Brain, overrides that of the Social Brain. The Biological Brain too can become colored by the Emotional Brain. The basic drive to eat food for nourishment can be, and often is, directed towards “junk” for purely emotional reasons. It doesn’t take a lot to see that most of the decisions in the world today, individually and collectively, are made predominantly from or colored by the Emotional Brain.

All three brains are highly active and intimately involved in decision making. Just about every decision involves, to some degree or another, basic, emotional and social…intelligence. For certainly we consider the brain the seat of intelligence, at whatever level it might be operating. The next time you make a decision, consider it in terms of your basic biological needs, your individual and psychological emotional needs and, your social needs. And, just as you will make one of two choices, to do this or not, so keep an eye open for those two choices you make throughout each and every day.

The Positive Intention of Negative Behavior

leaning tree

 

All behavior has behind it some intention and some purpose. Behavior is creative and strives to meet a need or fulfill a want. However, the behavior may appear to be irrational and dysfunctional from a “normal” perspective. For example, it’s certainly not logical for self sabotage to be in some way helpful or useful, but it often is. Self sabotage can protect a person from facing success which can be terribly frightening. I’ve worked with several college students who suffered with text anxiety. They knew the information cold but when it came time to take the test, they would freeze up, do poorly and get a C or worse on the test. In just about every case, after some discussion, it became clear that if they were to get an A on the test they would feel the pressure to keep it up and by only getting C’s, that pressure was eliminated. They sabotaged their success to avoid stress and pressure. There is a positive intention in that – it is somewhat protective. Now, the problem was no longer text anxiety but rather the pressure and stress of maintaining success, which was addressed.
Another common example is a child who misbehaves in the home. In many cases the misbehavior is tied to parental conflict. When the parents are fighting or in some form of conflict, the child misbehaves in an attempt to draw the attention away from their conflict and to the child. And, it often works. If parents are squabbling about something, when the child misbehaves, the squabbling stops and they have to focus on the child’s behavior. There is a very positive intention in that misbehavior! Even if parents are not in conflict, a child’s behavior is often a means of getting attention. In a child’s mind, negative attention is often better than no attention at all. For a child, gaining parental attention is a positive intention. Or, take a situation in which an adolescent is involved in gang activity. The gang offers a sense of belonging which the adolescent may not get at home. The motivation to belong has behind it a very positive intention.

Emotional states such as depression and anxiety can also have at their basis a positive intention. Depression can keep a person from facing difficult challenges in their life. Although this is avoidance, it is also protective. A person with fragile self confidence may feel threatened by the possibility of failure and rather than acknowledge that and work to improve their confidence, they simply create a situation wherein they are not able to meet that challenge – they become depressed. The depression is protecting their sense of confidence. Granted, this is somewhat irrational. But, the mind is a funny place and can “make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” The same is true for anxiety or panic attacks. The positive intention behind these emotional/behavioral experiences can in some way be highly protective. Obsessiveness too can be protective in that it occupies the mind with recurring thoughts about something irrational while something else more important, more pressing, but which may also be painful or difficult to deal with, is pushed aside. Protection is a very powerful motivator and although we may protect ourselves in odd ways, the underlying intention is still protection, which is positive.

 

Even some horrific behaviors such as rape or murder can be viewed as having a positive intention behind them, although there is no argument that the behavior itself is unacceptable. These behaviors are almost always an expression of power and control. Rape is not about sex and murder most often does not have as its goal the ending of the other person’s life. The goal in these cases, more often than not, is to experience a sense of power and control and that, in itself, is a positive intention because we all need to feel, to some degree, a sense of power and control over our life. People who strive to experience power and control through these types of behaviors are clearly maladjusted. But, it’s hard to argue against the positive intention of seeking a sense of power and control. The question is how can we best satisfy that intention, without harming others? Wars are fought to try and ensure security. Who would say that seeking security is not a positive goal? Destroying “enemies” is about seeking safety. Who would say that safety is not a positive objective? Suicide is an escape from intolerable pain. Or, in some cases to escape dishonor. Those are not negative intentions. That course of action is so often not a wise choice; yet, the underlying motivation is positive.

 

Despite the fact that so much of our negative behaviors arise from underlying motivations which are reasonable and, in some cases, even noble, we too often focus on the behavior. We criticize and condemn behaviors without considering the needs from which those behaviors arise. This is not to suggest that we should condone such behaviors. But, we could, and should, place much more emphasis on correction than on punishment. For, one of the hallmark qualities of being human is our capacity to be corrected, to adjust, to change….given the proper education and support. We can learn better ways to satisfy the intentions which give rise to our behaviors.

The Pros and Cons of an Open Mind

 

rainbow

 

An open mind is good thing – most of the time. New ideas, new experience, increased knowledge, personal and professional growth, better relationships and an overall positive approach to life are just a few of the benefits of having an open mind. However, there are some pitfalls. Like an open window or an open door in which bugs can enter the home, an open mind is susceptible to litter, junk, lies and deceptions, false information and misdirection. The open mind, like an open window, needs a screen to keep the bugs out. The mental screen is called “discrimination.” It is an attribute everyone has. Discrimination is the capacity to see differences. Like any tool, discrimination can be used wisely or foolishly, for good or for bad. Unless we want our open mind filled with all kinds of non-sense, we must learn to differentiate between what is of genuine value and what is junk. You might say that our discriminative capacity is like an email spam filter. We can set the parameters to filter out the junk and let in the useful information. Generally, what is important to us is considered useful and gets through. What is important to you? An open mind, with a screen to prevent the bugs from entering, or a spam filter to block the junk, is a wonderful thing.

The open mind is also susceptible to a lack of conviction. Too many conflicting ideas can enter an open mind and cause indecision. It is necessary now and then to close the mind, disallow any more input, make a decision and act. Perhaps more important than having an open mind is having a mind that is capable of being open – or closed. We need a mind with hinges – well lubricated and in good working order. The hinges of our mind is our ability to decide. We can decide to accept or reject information. We can decide to consider a point of view or not. We can decide to open or close the window. A home would become cold and drafty if the doors and windows could not be closed now and then. But, it would be awfully stuffy if they could not be opened. We simply decide to open or close the window – or the mind. But, our decision must be made from intelligence and reason, not emotional reactions. An emotionally reactive person would likely open the doors and windows during a blizzard – or close the mind to beneficial information.It’s the mind that remains closed that prevents creative growth.

It’s the closed mind that stated in the late 1870’s that the telephone had too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a communication device or in the early 1970’s that no one would ever want a computer in their home. Charles Duell, the Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents in 1899 said “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” In 1981, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, said “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Even the most visionary person may close their mind to possibilities. Perhaps there is a bit more effort in keeping the mind open, just as smiling requires a little more muscle movement. But, the results of a smile are so often rewarding – and the fruits of an open mind can be very enriching. Despite the predictions of “experts” quoted above, it appears the mind will strive to be open and will move forward into new experiences hitherto thought unavailable or unreachable.
Ultimately, the cons of an open mind can be dealt with and the pros of an open mind are too important to neglect. As Charles Kettering, the American engineer and inventor said, “Where there is an open mind, there will be a frontier.” Living as we do on the verge of global catastrophes, we need a frontier. We need a vision of a better future, and a path towards that future. For that, we will need an open mind.