Your Imagination

Imagination is a lovely thing.

It’s one of the things that makes humans powerful. Think of our ancestors. “Oh, I notice that rock is round… I wondeeeerrrr…” That’s how that story went and eventually there were wheels!

Almost everything that exists outside of the natural world started out in someone’s imagination. So, hey, imagination is great, and it can lead to useful things.

But something else stems from imagination, and it’s not so useful. Worry. “What if this awful thing happens??!?!!” or “I won’t be able to handle it if he breaks up with me” or “What if my kid turns out to be an unkind person?” Worry is future oriented, negative repetitive thinking, or anxious apprehension.

Of course everyone gets these thoughts.

If you feel plagued by worry, and find a lot of your attention is placed on negative ideas of the future, here are a couple things to try.

Start noticing it for what it is: imagination. Label it. When worry thoughts pop up, actually say to yourself, “oh, there’s imagination.” Take that step back, gently, away from the content. To call it what it is, imagining, just imagining. And then shift your attention, deliberately, to reality. To something physical and present, like the details of your breath, or the sights of what is right in front of you. To ground you in the present, in what is real. Need help? Try this 5 minute exercise to practice mindfully attending to sight. The point is to practice not pushing away or feeding worry thoughts, those fragments of imagination. Just gently shift the priority of your focus.

OR

Worry postponing. Pick a time, a 10 minute stretch in which your sole task will be to put all your effort into worrying. Nothing but worrying. Stay focused. Really do it. If worry thoughts arise outside that time, remind yourself that you have a dedicated time for that, and that you will come back to it then. This way your mind does not get constantly hijacked when you’d rather be putting your attention toward things that help you move toward your goals and values.

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Step 1: Go chase meaning [even if anxiety tags along]

“Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.”

-Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Many people who struggle with anxiety work desperately hard to reduce the stress and anxiety in their lives. Most patients tell me at Session 1 that they want to get rid of anxiety, that that’s their goal. I get that. Anxiety doesn’t feel good.

And many have narrowed their lives in order to escape that feeling. They’ve stopped working, or taking their kids out to the city, or dating, or talking to new people, or taking adventurous trips.

They think “Once I feel less anxious, I’ll do those things again.”

Here’s the thing. Don’t do that. No matter how intense that anxiety is.

I know this is not easy to do. I do. The reality is this: it’s worth it to dive into a rich life, full of experiences that you value, that give you meaning, whether or not anxiety also happens to be there.

Let it be there, if it insists. And turns out anxiety tends to get less intense when you truly turn your attention to the parts of your life you value. But either way, don’t let it guide the life you build.

Some people need help with this. This is work I find meaningful, so contact me if you want my help.

In the meantime, check out one of my favorite TED talks here

.  Kelly McGonigal speaks about stress and offers sound advice on what to do with it.

The Duck

There’s a duck on my table.

It’s art that belongs to the woman who owns the office suite. It’s playful, and even a little silly… I like it. It reminds me of thoughts, and the idea that we ought not to take them so seriously. They’re just thoughts afterall. Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they’re not. So hold them lightly. People who struggle with anxiety or OCD often look at the world through their thoughts. That can be trouble.

Psychologists have a term called “cognitive defusion,” strategies that provide more distance from thoughts, less attachment, less “fusion.” For example, someone with social anxiety might think after meeting someone new “She thinks I’m boring. I’m so boring!” If you are fused with those thoughts, you might then spend the next several minutes ruminating about your perceived social incompetence and how you’ll always be alone, etc. The mind can be very active when it weaves a story!

Let’s rewind and play that out differently. If you’re practicing cognitive defusion, try on a different approach. When the thought “she thinks I’m boring” pops up in your head, notice it as a thought. You don’t need to make it go away, and you don’t need to feed it either. Take a second to say to yourself “I notice that I’m having the thought that… she thinks I’m boring.” Say it again and really take it in.

Practice now. Say “She thinks I’m boring.” And then say “I notice that I’m having the thought that she thinks I’m boring.”  Pay attention to the difference.

This is one of many tools to start to develop a different relationship with your thoughts, so they have less impact on the life you want to lead. If you want more help with this, a great book is Russ Harris’s Happiness Trap. I’m also happy to talk with you about treatment. I specialize in therapy for anxiety and OCD. You should know, though, that if you come to my office, you might notice a duck on my table.   

 

We Learn By Watching Ourselves

If you struggle with anxiety or panic, avoidance is your enemy.

If you’re afraid, it’s the most natural thing in the world to choose to get away from that scary thing as fast as you can. We’re built for that. It’s understandable. And when people talk about fight or flight, know that flight is usually the favorite. If a saber toothed tiger is coming your way, fighting is not a grand idea if fleeing is an option. So avoidance is natural, it makes sense. Unfortunately, it also feeds false alarm systems that keep you stuck in the anxiety and panic loop. Let me share two reasons.

  1. We all respond to rewards. Whether you’re a pigeon learning to play ping pong with food pellets (seriously), a child learning to stay in bed with a sticker chart, or a complicated adult struggling with how to respond to fear, the principle is the same: Reinforcement strengthens behavior. Rewards work. Each time you avoid, you manage to reduce that anxiety just a bit. It works, right? For a little while anyway. So you’ve just rewarded yourself with some relief, with the absence of anxiety. The bad news is that this reinforcement just made it more likely you’ll avoid again next time you have the opportunity. This is trouble for lots of reasons, including…
  2. People learn by watching themselves. If we see ourselves avoid the highway, restaurants, talking to that attractive person, stepping on certain parts of the ground, being far from home…. we reason “there MUST be some threat for me to be acting this way.” This isn’t always in our awareness, but avoidance convinces us even more that the thing we’re avoiding ought to be avoided. In the long run, it makes it scarier.  It increases the perception of threat. That’s not helpful.

 

In almost every treatment plan I create with patients struggling with anxiety, avoidance is one of the most primary targets. It isn’t easy, but many of my patients find it’s not as hard as they feared (imagination can be intense!). If you’re reading this and it resonates, think of one small way to act the opposite when you have the urge to avoid. Pick one thing. Pick something manageable, but challenging. Go!