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Unlearning Anxiety, pt. 1
Anxiety is a learned behavior. Can you imagine! The brain actually learns how to become anxious. Research shows that brain development in traumatized infants is significantly different than that of normally-raised babies. It predisposes them to adult struggles with stress and emotional illness.
(See Allan Shore, the Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health, Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol. 22(1–2), 201–269 (2001), Pdf document to be found at http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=infant+development+genesis+anxious+brain&btnG=Search&as_sdt=0%2C33&as_ylo=&as_vis=0 )
The good news is that the anxious brain can also heal. Research on what happens to the brain during meditation shows that even newbies at it can start to reach for changes that Tibetan lamas have mastered in a lifetime of training.
(See Daniel Goleman, Finding Happiness: Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left, New York Times, February 4, 2003, http://www.mindfullybeing.co.uk/doc/Finding%20Happiness.pdf )
So if you say, "I'm an anxious person," it sounds like, well, that's that. But if we stand in awe of our brains and marvel at the fact that they can re-learn how to respond to similar situations that triggered the old responses, hey, we have a fighting chance of overcoming history.
What does your attitude do to your relationship? It gives you the permission to spout your anxiety all over the place and your husband (or wife) can't do anything about it (or so he thinks, but that's another post). Do you see where we’re going here? Your thinking is plum wrong. You do not have permission or any excuse to act up and make him scared or unhappy or nervous himself just because you are used to feeling and acting anxious. You have no right to have a tantrum. You have no right to chain-smoke. You have no right to jump and shout. You have no right to pace the floor and worry every time someone sneezes. You have no right to be short with people just because you think you’re nervous. You even have no right to flunk out of school just because taking tests is a cue for you to feel anxious.
We’ll grant that you once had good reason to get into this mode of reacting to things. But the buck stops there. Now, you want to move from a position of being disempowered to being empowered. Up until now, you’ve been disempowered because you thought you “were” an anxious person and that’s that. Being empowered means you get to take charge of your life. So start now.
If you “do” anxiety, take the following six steps immediately:
1. Notice all the things you do that inflict the anxiety on everyone around you.
2. Notice the negative thoughts that accompany each behavior.
3. For each one, be your own best lawyer and argue why it is not necessarily so.
4. On yellow sticky notes write, “think positive” and put them all over the house and your car.
5. Practice taking very long, slow, deep breaths and visualize a pleasant scene for 60 seconds five times a day.
6. Put the above together: Every time you have a negative thought, allow the sticky notes to remind you to start taking the deep breaths, do the positive visualization and think the positive thought. Go further! Don’t wait for the negative thought! Every time you look at the sticky note, take 60 sec. for positive thinking.
This works! And here’s why. As you very well know, feelings are awfully controlling. Sometimes it feels as though you simply can’t change how you feel. That is because feelings are located in a different part of the brain than rational thoughts and that part of the brain is activated much more quickly than the rational part. So, the key to the success of this is to get control of the automatic reaction of the emotional part of the brain. When you take a deep breath, it slows down your entire metabolic system, affecting breathing, the heart, blood pressure, sweat, and so on. When you put a pleasant picture in your mind at the same time, you are making a mental connection that is very powerful. The emotional part of the brain reacts the same way to the positive mental picture and positive thought as it would to actually being in a pleasant place. What’s more—and here is the absolutely amazing part—the brain stores the experience as it would any other memory! It’s as if you actually had that pleasant experience.
The net effect is that if you do this without fail, over time you will literally change your “personality” from anxious to calm.
Next post: a great example of the above exercise.