How do you worry? Have you ever taken the time to think about the mechanics of it? Worry usually starts with a simple thought. Let’s take the example of a writing project you are working on. You are humming along working on the article or book when suddenly a thought pops in your head: “This is taking a long time.” Shortly thereafter, as you continue to work, another thought pops in your head: “Bob writes really quickly.” You might start to feel a bit queasy at this point, but you are still okay, humming along. Then you look at the calendar, and another couple of thoughts pop into your head. “I have not called the guy to fix that leak in the basement, I owe Mildred that item from our last meeting and my youngest child is walking around in shoes two sizes too small. ” Your queasiness has been replaced by a bit of hyperventilation, maybe even a shortness of breath. Then the thoughts start to connect to each other in a persistent effort to make sense of all of this random data. This project is taking a long time, I am behind on a number of items, I am running out of time, others are more efficient than me, I am not cut out to be a writer. I should just give up now.
Sound familiar? The thoughts themselves may vary, but the process is always the same. A simple thought or observation leads to other thoughts, and we believe all of them. I used the example of a writing project because it is common, but this same scenario can be applied to any issues with your children, in the workplace, in your family, in any interaction or task that you undertake. You can’t stop thinking about doom and gloom and you believe that doom and gloom are imminent. Why does this happen?
If I think it, it must be true.
When you can’t stop thinking about something, you start to believe it is true. In fact, according to Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, the rational parts of our brain determine how worthy a thought is by the ease with which we can bring it to mind.
Our brains are hardwired in this way as a basic survival mechanism. Let’s see how this would play out in the Savannah. Say that you hear a rustling in the bushes, and your mind thinks that it’s a predator. You continue to hear the rustling and you continue to imagine that there is a predator lurking in the bushes. If you weren’t hardwired to believe that, then when it was actually true, you’d end up as saber-toothed tiger lunch. Your brain doesn’t care how many times you are wrong, just as long as you are right when it counts. And the best way to ensure that is to always believe what your subconscious mind is telling you.
Why you can’t just suppress the thought
Once you have gone down the path from “this project is taking a long time” to “I am an illiterate fool,” it can be really hard to pull yourself back. So, why not try to squash that first thought right off the bat? If not everything I think is true, if most of my worries are unfounded, if this is not a savannah life-or-death situation, I just won’t think about it.
That sounds like a reasonable plan except for another fun fact about your brain. Thought and emotion suppression only makes the thoughts and emotions stronger. This is so incredibly groundbreaking that I just have to say it again, only louder:
THOUGHT AND EMOTION SUPPRESSION ONLY MAKES THE THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS STRONGER.
Try this for yourself. For the next five minutes try to NOT think about grapefruit. Go ahead. See if you can wipe grapefruit completely out of your mind. Whatever you do, no grapefruit thinking whatsoever. Go ahead. I will wait.
How did that go? Pretty badly, I imagine. If you tried to think about grapefruit on your own, this would be more difficult than when I tell you not to.
What the heck? Are we all just a bunch of rebels? Are we channeling our inner teenager? No, our brains are actually set up this way and some really smart people with psychology degrees can explain why.
The Operator, the Monitor and their Self-Control System Side-Kick
The brain has two functions that need to work together when you are trying not to do something. The operator function directs your attention to something other than the thought you are trying to avoid. So when I asked you not to think about grapefruit, the operator launched into action and started scanning your brain for other things to think about instead of grapefruit. For the operator to be able to do her job, she needs to rely on the brain’s self-control system, which is an energy hog. Imagine it as a machine that is running at warp speed without a break.
The other part of your brain that needs to launch into action when you get the command to not think about something is the monitor. The monitor’s job is to make sure that you really aren’t thinking about grapefruit. So, while the operator is working and the self-control system is going full haul, the monitor is scanning for grapefruit thoughts. The monitor doesn’t need a lot of resources or efforts. It’s your always-on system, humming away in the background like an energy-efficient LED bulb. It’s like your brain’s security system. You leave it on all the time, and when a threat pops up, it sounds the alarm.
As long as your self-control system is engaged, the operator and the monitor get along well. For example, when you are having a conversation with someone and you don’t want to lose your patience, the operator is concentrating on what the other person is saying and coming up with responses, while the monitor is on the look-out for trigger points that might set you off and make you explode.
Other times, the self-control system required to keep this partnership symbiotic gets overloaded.
Take the example of writing. When you want to write, the operator is setting you up at the keyboard, moving your fingers over the keys and composing text. The monitor is scanning your environment for danger. “This is taking a really long time.” it tells you, just subtly as sort of a little pre-warning. You keep typing, and the monitor continues scanning and then it says, “And this is really bad, too, maybe you should stop typing right now.” You ignore that and keep at it, albeit a bit more stressed now than you were a few minutes earlier. Then the monitor says, “Bob always writes really quickly and has great stuff—Just saying – maybe you should stop typing.” If you are still writing, the monitor steps up its efforts, because really, there is a huge looming threat out there that you need to know about and you just aren’t paying enough attention to it. Because you are clearly not paying attention, the monitor takes out its secret weapon:” You are never going to get published at this rate – fight or flight.” Flight makes you want to give up, throw your hands up and quit because you are not cut out to be a writer. Fight turns on all your adrenaline sources, increases your breathing rate and heart rate and readies you to engage in battle with the book. Both of these feelings are unpleasant and counterproductive to your writing. You need the operator to write effectively and productively, but where is she? Exhausted by all of this, she’s thrown up her hands and gone to take a nap, taking the burned-out self-control system with her.
The result? Without the operator working to think about something else, the monitor takes over muttering grapefruit, grapefruit, grapefruit all the time. Instead of going away, the thought becomes stronger, more persistent and generates anxiety, which generates more thoughts, each less in touch with reality than the previous one.
So, what’s a gal to do? Those thoughts and the accompanying anxiety level are unpleasant. I WANT to get rid of them.
1. Let the thoughts and emotions run their course. That’s right. The only way past the unpleasantness is through it. If suppressing the thought makes it stronger, then don’t suppress it, but don’t believe it either. Feelings and thoughts are not permanent. They come and go. Whatever crazy thought you are having is going to eventually go away too. If you feel anxious, acknowledge that feeling and then keep writing.
2. Put the lie to the thought. Now that you have focused on the thought, dissect it. Point out to yourself that you really know very little about Bob and his apparent superhuman productivity. Remind yourself how often you have felt the same way and got it all done successfully.
3. Don’t categorise yourself as an anxious person. Instead of saying, “I am anxious”, say, “That’s anxiety I am feeling right now.” That may seem subtle, but it completely shifts your perspective from what you are permanently (an anxious person) to what you just happen to be temporarily feeling in the moment (anxiety).
4. Realize you don’t have to act on your thoughts. Just because your mind is telling you to stop writing, or not to write at all, doesn’t mean you have to listen to it. Start writing and keep writing and just let those thoughts chatter away in the background. The more you just let them be, the faster they will dissipate.
5. Separate the emotion from the worry. Often what has you upset is not the thing you are worried about, but the worry itself. What has you upset is thinking about or predicting the consequences of any of your actions, not the actions themselves. What has you upset is very simply your brain. Once you wrap your head around that (pun intended), the world becomes a much more liberating place.
6. Get adequate rest. I cannot emphasize this enough. The more rested and relaxed you are, the better these two parts of the brain work. When you are tired, the monitor is so loud, and so obnoxious, and there is so little energy left for self-control that the operator stops working and just gives in to the panic, overwhelm and chaos. It’s like when the frazzled new mother just hands over the toy/candy/cereal box to the screaming toddler in the grocery store just to get her to stop screaming. But when you are rested, instead of handing over the cereal box, the operator whips out an iPad and keeps the monitor occupied so she can get her work done.
7. Make a list of all your worries and what you can do to counteract them. Getting those worries out of your head and onto paper engages your analytical brain. Classify worries by those you can do something about and those you can’t. Cross off the worries that you can do nothing about. Just like checking items off a to-do list, this sends a message to your brain that you are done with that. Then create a plan of attack for the worries you can do something about.