Monday, February 20, 2012

The circuit breaker

Among the thousands, millions, billions or however many thoughts fly through your head every day there are plenty of scary ones, carrying doubt and seeking to play on the deepest insecurities.

Most of the time for most people (I think) they pass with maybe a fleeting awareness, a shiver at the thought and a fix of rational perspective. Some evolved people even embrace these thoughts to stare down their fears, and as a deep, dark and brooding Scorpio I'm partial to dabbling in darker areas of the mind when I feel capable. Probably why I struggled with my anxiety for so long.

Like many people, thoughts that frightened me often got caught up in a web of uncertainty and anxiety that demanded thorough reassurance before they could be released. I'm no scientist but I believe it's partly thanks to an overactive amygdala. Simple chemical reactions lead to entirely misguided attempts to attain feelings of certainty, security and confidence. Just because of a shot of anxiety.

The thought itself isn't important - it could be the self-conscious anxieties we all get about appearance or safety or acceptance, or an absurd irrational fear like what if I walk under a ladder and there's a poisonous spider in my cereal?! The anxiety caused is dependent on the brain, not the cause of the fear. And what's important is how you react.

It's that moment when you should step back and take a deep breath, but the instinctive response for those of us habituated to anxiety is 'fight or flight'. To fight is to confront the thought by addressing it, answering it, thinking through it, rationalising it. Flight means trying to push it out of your head, by controlling or suppressing certain thoughts, or engaging in distructive distractions. Try to not think about an elephant for a minute. Fight or flight can bring temporary relief but in just feeds the beast of anxiety, making it stronger and/or more regular. Jeff Bell has a good analogy relating to OCD he calls Octopus Chewing Doubt-nuts.

When it comes back it is even harder to ignore, its demands even greater. And so the cycle begins. A downward spiral that gains momentum and becomes harder and harder to stop as anxiety grows and hits more often. There are only two ways out: play it out and hit the bottom when you get so exhausted or even sick you no longer have the energy to fight or run and gradually realise how useless the whole exercise was; or you find a circuit breaker to get out early. The first is obviously not recommended. The second is necessarily difficult. Sometimes painfully so, as anxiety grows along with the urge to give in, but it's damn rewarding - resist the urges and the anxiety does fade, thinking habits are altered and the actual structure of the brain starts to change. Stick to it and it gets easier each time.

One of the awesome things about your brain is its plasticity, you can literally change the way it functions to make you happier.

Finding a good circuit breaker can be a good way to do this when it comes to 'bad thoughts' that lead into a downward spiral. I understood all this for some time before I found the technique that works best for me - mindfulness. Learning to accept the anxiety-inducing thoughts for what they are and let them go in their own time rather than waste energy thinking them through or pushing them out.

I knew about and understood mindfulness for a while before I was able to actually learn how to practically implement it. For me the two best methods are yoga and running. Yoga forced me to let go of thoughts that held me back and find the moment with a clear mind. That helped me get into running and practice it in a non-structured environment. Knowing I could let them go, I eventually brought the practice into my regular thinking.

In 12-18 months my thinking has changed dramatically. I can recognise the thoughts that will throw me into that dark pit and let them go a lot easier. Not all the time, but I don't get caught in extended downward spirals for days and weeks like I used to. Where I do feel anxiety and overthink (overthinking is my one major lingering issue!) my circuit breaker kicks in much earlier. The urge, the absolute need to address some of those thoughts, 'normal' and irrational, is no longer really an issue.

After 15 years of conditioning my brain to debilitating, pain-inflicting ways of thinking and responding to my anxiety, and about five years of trying to figure out how to implement some of the cognitive therapies I was learning about, I have now significantly rewired my brain and overhauled those negative thought processes.

Finding the circuit breaker is the first step. 

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