~Holocaust Survivor, Corrie Ten Boom
The voice in your head
There is a running dialogue in our minds. Each of us has an internal conversation all day — EVERY DAY. It is a conversation that is so familiar to us, the static it creates seems normal and part of everyday life. The foundation of anxiety comes from the compulsive thinking known as mind chatter. The dialogue running in our mind is so automatic that, for the most part, we are not even aware of the continual chatter. If you are in a conversation with a friend, you don’t notice the sound of the air conditioner, the ticking of the clock, or the traffic outside. You might be aware of them peripherally, but you don’t give them any attention as you talk with your friend. You can hear them if you are quiet for just a few seconds, but they recede quickly to the background again as you continue talking and laughing with your friend. This is how mind chatter works. It is there, but it is only in the background. You only notice it when you stop and give it some attention.
Fearful thoughts such as the ones listed below all bring anxiety. The running dialogue in our minds goes on and on without our conscious awareness.
Examples of fearful thoughts:
“I’m not good enough”
“I might do something to embarrass myself”
“Bad things will happen”
“Good things won’t last”
“I have to prove my worth and value”
“Other people might hurt me”
“Others are smarter than I am”
“I won’t get my way”
In my office, I have a large window with a full view of the rugged Rocky Mountains. As I counsel with clients who struggle with anxious thinking, I often ask them to gaze out the window and describe what they see. They will explain, in great detail, the beauty and majestic features of the mountains in their view. In the peaceful focus, they feel content and calm. Suddenly, I introduce the frightening visual image of a Boeing 747 airplane entering the picture, flying directly toward our building. I ask them to visualize the airplane’s rapid approach and the unavoidable horror of it crashing into the building. I ask them to describe what they would do if a Boeing 747 airplane was actually flying directly toward us. Consumed in perceived danger, adrenaline begins to course through their veins as they describe their fears. They imagine themselves running around the building screaming to alert others of the impending danger. Hearts begins to race and palms start to sweat as they describe looking for the fastest exit from the building that will lead to safety.
If this horrible scenario actually occurred, as it did when the Twin Towers in New York City crumbled after terrorist attacks in 2001, the adrenaline produced by our bodies would be a good thing. It would compel us to take the necessary action that would lead to safety. In dangerous situations like these, the hero within us can manifest itself, allowing us to perform superhuman feats that are well beyond what our bodies are normally capable of doing. People may jump into a raging river, enter a burning building, or lift a car to save someones’ life. Here is the interesting thing…whether we actually see a Boeing 747 airplane flying directly toward us, or we only perceive that it might happen, the body reacts in exactly the same way.
Whether we are in real danger or we only perceive danger, our bodies release adrenaline. Even though there really isn’t an airplane flying toward us and we are not performing heroic, superhuman feats, the brain does not distinguish the difference. The fight or flight response is activated. The fearful “what if,” thinking has consumed us and created a situation of danger in our minds, and our bodies react. We feel the fearful energy trapped inside our bodies as anxiety that can lead to full blown panic attacks.
Our body doesn’t question our thoughts. Instead, our body takes our thoughts at face value. If, when you walk into a room of co-workers whispering, you think they are laughing at you, your body will respond with rejection, embarrassment, and anger. You might perceive your co-workers as judgmental jerks even though they may not actually be laughing at you or talking about you. Your body can’t recognize the difference between your perceptions and reality.
Most of our fearful thinking is not on the same level of danger as an airplane crashing into the building. We worry about what others think of us, paying the bills, the paper we have to write, the speech we have to give, or a misbehaving child. The important thing about mind chatter is that the mind does not distinguish the difference between what you are thinking and what is really happening. The body just accepts your thoughts as true. Your body assumes what you are thinking is real and responds with anxiety and panic. Understanding this connection provides the framework for managing your anxiety.
Mind chatter goes on and on. Feelings follow the thought. The feeling then makes the thought seem real. An example, from my five-year-old grandson who was sleeping over at my house, illustrates this concept. He awoke early one morning crying. His hands covered his eyes as he explained through his tears that he couldn’t fall asleep. I said, “It’s morning. You slept all night.” His tears instantly stopped, replaced by a huge smile, as he asked if he could have pancakes for breakfast. This simple event demonstrates the connection between our thoughts and feelings. When he thought he couldn’t fall asleep, my grandson was filled with worry and despair. When he realized it was morning and he had slept all night, he was excited to face the new day and wanted some pancakes. His first thought – that he couldn’t sleep – was not true, but his feelings responded to the thought as if it were true.
Bernie Segal M.D., a renowned cancer specialist, teaches that our emotions are a chemical reaction based on our thoughts. He explains, “Laughter and joy can mean a healing, life-enhancing message going to every cell in your body, whereas shame, guilt and despair can lead to destructive messages. Your emotions are chemical. It is exciting to understand that specific thoughts can create changes in the body. When you are happy, your body knows it. When you’re depressed and feeling hopeless, your body also knows that. And when I refer to your body I mean your bone marrow, the lining of your blood vessels, your liver. Every organ participates in the happiness or the sadness.
Consciousness and knowledge occur at the cell membrane level. We know that the happy individual has a different set of neuropeptides (hormones) circulating from those of the person who is depressed, angry or anxious. Our neuropeptides are communicating with every cell in our bodies. Our gut feelings, how we deal with life, how many white cells we produce, how rapidly a wound heals–all of these are linked.” (Bernie Siegel, How To Live Between Office Visits, pg. 105)
Our whole body responds to our thoughts. No wonder anxiety feels so overwhelming.
“Nothing is good or bad. but thinking makes it so.” ~William Shakespeare
Within your own internal dialogue, your thoughts seem perfectly logical. When I first tell my clients that their thoughts might not completely reflect reality, they don’t believe me. Their ego doesn’t like their cherished beliefs to be challenged. The idea that some of their thoughts are an illusion brings out the stubborn pride on which their fearful ego thrives. Instead, we begin with just a consideration that perhaps some of their fearful thinking isn’t entirely accurate.
Because some fearful thoughts could actually happen, though highly unlikely, the thought seems very logical. For example, it is unlikely that you would faint while speaking in public, but it could happen. The chances of it happening are extremely remote, but your body responds as if it is already happening. Is it logical to spend your energy worrying about something that is only a very small possibility and isn’t actually happening?
MY THOUGHTS AND ANXIETY ARE LINKED — NOW WHAT?
When you understand the power of your thinking, then it is time to do something about it.
There are two skills to learn:First – You must learn to recognize your thoughts. Second – You must realize that you have a choice. You can choose whether to embrace the thought as real or let it go.
Begin by observing your thoughts. Imagine that you and your thoughts are separate. You become a spectator of your own thoughts. This is called being the “observing self.” Spiritual philosopher, Deepak Chopra, says that we are the observer and the observed. This is what makes us unique in the world. We can think about our thinking, but animals do not have the capacity for this process. Stop several times a day and notice what you are thinking. Jotting down your thoughts helps you notice the patterns and themes of your mind chatter. When you observe your thoughts, you are in a position to make a choice about what you think. Noticing your thoughts in a nonjudgmental way takes the power from the fear-driven ego and creates an energy that allows you to let go of the fearful thoughts.
With the fearful thoughts gone, your authentic self has space to thrive and grow. Download the Floating Leaf Guided Imagery in Empowered Life Solutions Premium Content to help you in the process of learning the skill of observing your thoughts.
Before you can manage your thoughts, you need more than just a general notion of what you are thinking. You need to move your thoughts into your conscious awareness. Then you are in the present moment.
In the beginning, most people can stay in the present moment observing their thoughts for only a few seconds. That is a great beginning. Notice the thought without any resistance. Don’t try to change the thought or do anything with it at this point. Don’t judge or analyze what you observe. Just notice the thought as an observer and jot it down. After you notice the thought, become aware of the feelings that follow it.
Anxiety is about time and thoughts. (To learn more about how time relates to anxiety, see Anxiety – “Living in the Present.”) When you are able to observe your thoughts, the mind chatter ceases to overpower you with anxiety and panic. You are back in a place of choice. Observing your thoughts empowers you to stop identifying with them. You learn that you are not your thoughts. You can say to yourself, “it is just a thought.” You don’t need to change the thought, but you can decide whether you will accept it or let it go. You realize that you have a choice over your thoughts, which gives you incredible freedom to be who you really want to be. You come to a place of quiet inside that is deeper than your mind chatter.
Practice noticing your thoughts by becoming the observing self. As you do this, you are on the path to managing your anxiety. At first, you may only get a fleeting glimpse of the inner peace. It may seem a far reach to grasp the connection between your thoughts and your anxiety. You may even feel some resistance to the idea because the intensity of the anxiety is so real. The anxiety is blocking you from the overall sense of well-being that rests within you. Reclaiming your life through becoming conscious in the present moment will provide the pathway to this inner sense of peace. Taking a step back from your mind chatter is extremely liberating. You get to make the choice – not the anxiety. You are back in charge.