Beyond Negative Thoughts & Anxiety
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.
It’s a clear indication we have somehow learned to live with a certain level of constant discontent, unease, and fear of uncertainty.
Consequently, all forms of fear — anxiety, tension, stress, worry — have become a socially acceptable form of mental illness.
The fear manifested in all its forms has succeeded in desensitizing us to such an extent that we never gather the courage to find out the real reasons behind this constant unease.
There is an unconscious attempt to address this background of Constant anxiety through the use and abuse of various stimulants like — alcohol, drugs, mobile, work, food, television, travel, compulsive shopping.
Let’s try to understand the phenomenon through this incident :
You are in a supermarket with your four years 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 your hubby on his upcoming birthday. There is a lot of rush in the electronic store, and you suddenly realize that your kid’s tiny little hand 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 thought seems 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.
A framework to understand the components
The above incident shows 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?
Stay with me to decode the underlying mystery.
Here, I will map out (illustrated by yours truly) how our feelings and associated physiological response affect our assumptions & beliefs, ultimately 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 to produce the change in the others.
Once you have a 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 visit the concept of “Conditioning” first.
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 elephant’s conditioning from a very young age when they were weak; they were made to believe that they couldn’t yank the stake out of the ground. As a result, their behavior gets heavily influenced by their long-ingrained limiting beliefs.
Because of this conditioning, your thinking becomes so spineless and circumscribed that you start accepting things that make no sense.
So how you choose to undo the long-term damage done by conditioning will eventually help you in course correction.
I presume you’re still with me on this.
Now coming back to components illustrated in the above map, it is much easier to think about the relationships between different factors.
For example, you might 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 the realization that this pattern of behavior is linked to 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 judgment of other people.
Voila, you’ve 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. So take your time.
You can also try out different permutations and combinations by shuffling the elements and connections around until you develop a network that makes an 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.
Attachment + Aversion = Anxiety
Is it possible to train your mind so that it is no longer tied to both sense of attachment and a sense of aversion?
But before that, first, we need to revisit the definition of Attachment & Aversion.
Attachment is nothing but the mind’s desperate attempt to hold onto something and refuse to let it go.
Aversion is an equally desperate effort to keep something away and refuse to let it come.
These two are flip-sides of each other and account 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 unnecessarily.
Similarly, when you experience an uncomfortable sensation in your body or mind, you want to keep it away.
In short, you often fail to keep both aversion and sensation separate.
Once you train your mind to see them as two distinct experiences, 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 a sum total of all the stories we tell ourselves
One of the prominent side-effect associated with negative thoughts of any kind is its capacity to make you feel helpless.
- I am not going to get a good job again,…(and never will…).
- I 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).
And when you keep revisiting the path of feeling helpless again and again, you end up clinically depressed. You feel helpless in life.
You simply give up and stop doing anything.
There is no doubt the post-pandemic world we live in can be a harsh place, where even the 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 a better template.”
Martin E.P. Seligman, the psychologist who conceptualized and developed the theory of learned helplessness called this “explanatory style,” 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, you feel better and 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 can you 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
The best part of friendship is you don’t judge your friends. I want to conclude the article with this amazing poem.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house Every morning a new arrival.A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.Welcome and entertain them all!Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,who violently sweep your houseempty of itsfurniture, still, treat each guest honorably.He may be clearing you out for some new delight.The dark thought, the shame, the malicemeet them at the door laughing and invite them in.Be grateful for whatever comes,because each has been sent as a guide from beyond. – Rumi