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Unlearning Anxiety, pt. 3: The Role of Negative Thoughts
When Marlene started the steps to anxiety reduction, she didn’t realize that her anxious behavior was accompanied by negative thoughts. What she learned was that these thoughts actually propel the anxious feelings and behavior. She had to do some quiet reflection to recognize those underlying thoughts, and eventually she was able to pin them down. Then, she had to challenge them. Here are the arguments she came up with for each one: “There is always an end to misery,” “I need to get calm so I can think of a solution; there is always a solution,” “Being human means you have problems.”
Meanwhile, she was practicing the deep breathing along with the visualization. She thought of a lovely mountain cabin she had once stayed at on vacation. She carefully filled in the picture with the plants, the furniture, the trees, everything about that cabin. When she got into it, she could smell the mountain air and hear the birds cawing. She was amazed to notice how nice and relaxed she would become when she did this.
Of course, she put up the sticky notes and, finally, combined everything, doing the breathing, the visualization, and the positive thoughts all at the same time several times a day.
Then, one day, a check bounced and, out of habit, she retreated into her usual pattern. “Now I have an extra charge,” she moaned, “and there isn’t enough money to cover it! What will I do? What will I do? Oh, God, why does this always have to happen to me? I hate this!” She started breathing rapidly; she started to sweat. Marlene began to feel faint. She collapsed on a chair, weak at the knees, her head swimming. Then her eye caught a yellow sticky note. The words on it seemed to make no sense. “Think positive,” it said. She looked at them as if a different person had written them.
This is a common reaction to stress. Neurons in the brain fire in the old patterns very quickly, before you have a chance to think rational thoughts. And that sets off all the old, automatic responses that were so unhelpful to you all these years. It is as if you have slid right back into the past, making all the new ideas seem unfamiliar. But the human brain is amazing in its ability to learn and incorporate that learning. Remember how I said that imagined memories seem as potent as real past experiences? At stressful times like this, that is what you hang onto.
Good student that she was, Marlene had been practicing for weeks with the exercise just to prepare for a moment like this. She stared at the sticky note and took a deep, refreshing breath. That’s always got to be Step #1.That felt better. She took another one. As the air filled her lungs, she automatically went back to her special place in her mind’s eye. She looked at the trees blowing in the breeze and felt much calmer. Time slowed down for her. She took another deep, calming breath. “This does happen to people,” she told herself. “It is not a good thing but it is not the end of the world either.” She continued watching the leaves blow on the trees in her mind’s eye. She saw the sunlight peeking through the green, woody canopy. She felt a little better.
This freed her mind to begin to work for her. She remembered that she had put a little cash in a drawer for emergencies. “I guess this qualifies as an emergency,” she told herself. Marlene took another deep breath, glancing one last time at her mountain cabin before opening her eyes. She proceeded to get the money and hurried to the bank.
As she stood on line at the bank, Marlene had an “Ah-ha!” experience. It came to her, with an unheard-of forcefulness that if she could get control of her anxiety so well—and she was, indeed, feeling a lot better—she could get control of some of the things that had triggered her anxiety in the first place. She had absolutely hated balancing her checkbook. It was the most boring, annoying act on earth. It took up so much time, and invariably she made countless arithmetical errors. That’s why her way of coping had been to always keep enough money in the account to protect herself from situations like this one. Obviously, it was not a good enough system because something had gone wrong.
Stay tuned for the fourth and final installment on anxiety: What Marlene does with her new awareness of her triggers and how her anxiety works. And how all that saves her marriage.