The Essence of Anxiety

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Confucius; “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.”

Words are important; they are the frames and cages of what is possible. The words we use to describe ourselves and our issues are particularly important. I have a longstanding interest in the words and ideas we use in everyday language to describe our psychological experience and problems. In my opinion the ones we use most often are not always very helpful. They tend to see experience and problems as things that happen to us or that are caused by the events and circumstances of our lives. These everyday ways of thinking tend to suggest we are the relatively passive victims of our biologies and biographies. There is an alternative, one which puts us at the heart of our experiences and problems. If we see ourselves as active agents who are constantly engaged in making sense of the world, we are no longer just the passive victims of the vicissitudes of our lives. We become empowered. It allows us to see how we can begin to help ourselves and improve the quality of our lives.

For example our usual everyday ways of talking about anxiety problems keep us locked into the idea that anxiety is something we suffer from and that it is something we can at best only learn to control. But these are modern myths.

We don’t suffer from anxiety. We may suffer some distress but the anxiety is something we are actively doing. After all, we are all interested in how things will turn out for us so we are all in the business of trying to predict what might happen and how this compares with what we don’t want.

This is the essence of anxiety; predicting something and not wanting it to come to pass. These are both psychological acts that only we can perform in the privacy of our own thoughts. Situations don’t make us anxious. It is the sense we make of them that does the work. If we predict something is likely and we really don’t want it to happen we will become very anxious and then our bodies will react. We won’t feel very good but our bodies are actually reacting to what our minds are seeing. This is the healthy way our bodies are supposed to react.

If we begin to get to grips with the idea that our anxiety is something we are doing then we have the real possibility of learning not to be anxious rather than just learning to control it.

This is often easier said than done as we are often not aware of much of our thinking. We are largely unconscious creatures.  Much of what we think and do, we do by habit.

Wallas Graham; “How can I know what I think till I see what I say”.

If we want to understand the predicting and not wanting that drives our physical feelings of anxiety we will need to find ways of expressing our thoughts. As Wallas Graham suggests one way is to see what we say. Talking to someone else is useful, even if they say nothing, because we hear what we say. Another way would be to write down our thoughts.

However, when we describe our distress we should look carefully at the words we use. We should be careful not to use words that make the distress bigger, deeper, more complicated, more enduring. If we use mainstream ideas it is so easy to fix our anxiety, for example, as some fault deep within us, or as a sign of impending loss of control or even madness.  We should question the words and ideas we use and look for more active, empowering alternatives.

If our anxiety arises when we predict something at the same time as not wanting it, then as soon as we say it is not going to happen or we don’t mind if it does, then we will no longer be anxious. If we see anxiety like this it becomes a here-and-now, in-the-moment act. It is no longer a permanent and inevitable part of us, no longer something wrong with us. It becomes just something we are doing that we would rather not do. If we see it like this we can see we have some relearning to do. Unlearning old habits is hard but we must remember that learning is one of the most natural and automatic things we do providing we let ourselves. The first step is to get unstuck by describing our problems with words that allow us to move forward.

One way we can keep ourselves on track is to write down what our goals are. Make them SMART; specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bounded. We could write these down and refer to them frequently to keep them in mind and to keep ourselves on track. We could also remind ourselves of the Chinese proverb; the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. This tells us that we should plod patiently and persistently. If we do, and if we are not put off by the size of the task, we can achieve impressive results.

Guest blog – Charles Merrett is the author of The Origin of AnxietiesHis book is available in print or as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk.

How We Learn to Believe

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I saw the movie Life of Pi in 3D the other day and it’s my pick for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture.  I don’t have knowledge of the voting even though I use to work for the PricewaterhouseCoopers partner who tallies the votes.  I remember the book Life of Pi was a masterpiece of storytelling and the movie had me in its visual grip from the opening scene.    It’s what I would call magical realism at its finest.

Stories are very powerful and are one of the key ways we learn.  How did the movie director get me to submit to his enchanting spell and suspend my beliefs?   First, Pi promised that I would believe in God after I heard his story, an impossible task so I had lowered my expectations.    Then the director built a case that Pi had a special way with animals because his father owned a zoo and he grew up with the animals in the story.   Pi was also an accomplished swimmer as his father loved swimming pools and took him all over the world trying different pools.  He also built a case that while Pi’s father was a realist, Pi was a practicing Catholic, Muslim and Hindu.  His cleverness, resourcefulness and strong will power were apparent as he devised methods to get his grammar school classmates to start calling him Pi instead of the cruel nickname – Pissy – they gave him as a substitute for his given name, Piscine.

Suspension of belief is an important part of the change process. When first confronted with a new way of thinking or doing, we need to suspend our belief so we can be open to new ways.  We must admit to ourselves we are not qualified at this early stage to judge the methods or the outcome, we simply have no experience in these matters.  Once you are past your conscious sensors you are now open to new information and ways of doing things.  This is the critical place to be in order to challenge our ingrained beliefs and start Thinking Anew.  This is where we process our experiences and start to make sense out of what we see and the stories we hear.  This is where we mix faith, religion, empiricism, science, wishes, beliefs and emotions and chose how we see the world.

I believe Life of Pi has made my life richer.  As Abraham Rothberg said so well “Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth.”

Morning Thoughts

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Writing first thing in the morning is critical when using writing as part of your therapy.  The object is to get past your conscious editor – your ego – so you can replace bad habits, challenge twisted beliefs and eradicate destructive behavior.  Influencing your subconscious requires diligence, repetition, stealth and trickery.  If your conscious mind realizes that you’re trying to change things it will surely defend itself by a barrage of justifying thoughts.   The act of writing down your aspirations first thing in the morning sets the tone for the day.  By the use of constant repetition, these writings will become part of you and make you into what you need to be.

The act of morning writing will also generate memories and feelings.  You need to capture these raw but so original thoughts on paper as they well up from your core.    This is how and where change takes place.  It’s slow and methodical but it works.  Your subconscious will make sense of the conflicting thoughts, will propose new and creative ways to act and will eventually find a way to gain the cooperation of your conscious mind.  As your mind issues new marching orders, then you will start to act differently.  You will also discover that you can’t write one thing every morning and do something else the rest of the day . . . for very long.  When you change and you will, you will know exactly why.

Time management guru and author Laura Vanderkam ,  wrote an article titled What successful people do in the morning that went viral on the Internet and was picked by Yahoo!’s editors as their favorite article of 2012.    In the article she says “If you wait until the end of the day to do meaningful but not urgent things like exercise, pray, read, ponder how to advance your career or grow your organization, or truly give your family your best, it probably won’t happen.  If it has to happen, then it has to happen first.”

If you have any doubts about the wisdom of using your mornings wisely, I strongly suggest you read her entire article and her book on the science of willpower, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

Book Review – The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence and Creativity

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The Tools will strengthen your problem solving skills.  If you want to create a life better than the one you have now, give The Tools a read.  Make notes, memorize the tools, visualize what you are meant to be and you’ll be on your way.  You’ll work hard at developing your capacity to create but the outcome will be worth it.  No false promises, no magic pills just great advice you can use immediately.  As with any self help program you have to find the one(s) that you can relate too.  You also have to know how you best acquire and retain knowledge; whether by writing, reading, listening or a combination of all three.   Stutz and Michels are truly on the cutting edge of psychotherapy and have the experience, tools and courage to show you what you need to do to improve your life.

How can I become a better writer?

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One becomes a better writer measured against his/her writing history by making a writing history.  That is, write until your fingers hurt, your posterior goes flat and your legs get numb.  Read everything.  Labels on bottles – yeah, the small type, too.  Everything on the cereal box.  A broad array of authors in all genres.  Read until your eyes feel sandy.  Until your eyelids collapse.  Until the words appear to have been printed backwards.  Then read some more.

Now, the truth is, writing may be something almost anyone can learn well, but creativity is inside you in the safe.  OPEN the safe and use its contents…!

Guest blog by J. Richard Jacobs http://www.jrichardjacobs.net

My Dark Secret

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Art Publisher B. Eric Rhoads teaches visual artists how to be business people. In his Art Marketing Boot Camp he walks artists through how to design their life, how to build a plan, how to know what you really want to do for the rest of your life. The reason he does this is because someone did it for him, and as a result, he built a blueprint for his life. Eric Rhoads believes having a plan committed to writing, reading it frequently (daily if possible), and holding yourself accountable is the only way to grow.

I stumbled upon visual art in retirement after a left brain career as a CPA and investment banker. While I’m comfortable with marketing intangibles, I had to learn the creative right brain ways of an artist. This kind of learning demands that you quiet your ego while you allow yourself to be a beginner. Being the new kid on the block is never easy but I found a way to fit in.

We are all born with the ability to learn and create. We just have to find the means and the methods that will help us change and become what we are meant to be. I have picked writing to get me to where I need to go. I write my aspirations every morning and record whatever wells up from my creative subconscious. Progress requires discipline, courage and focus. We can’t be everything, but we can become what we were meant to be.

Using Writing as Therapy: Coping With Cancer

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You have been told you have cancer and it’s curable.   Your doctor informs you he has deep experience battling this form of cancer   His army of medical experts are ready to go . . .  they fight this monster all the time . . . however, they need you to get ready to fight this battle both psychologically and physically.            You need to digest what you have been told, do research, map out the enemies position, locate others who have gone before you, find the courage to fight and be willing to change strategy at a moment’s notice.

Going into battle is scary.  You have no experience with the tactics and methods your medical team will use.   This battle is going to challenge your ability to cope and change.  So don’t turn away from your challenge.  Face it.  Feel it fully.  Know what it is capable of.  Feel it – but don’t think about it.  You’re going to be Ok. It will work out.  Many others have done battle with the cancer monster and have done just fine.  Give it your full attention.  Be willing to make changes.

What you will get out of this is the understanding, a belief that you can do something you never thought you’d be able to do.  The worst thing you can do is go into battle alone, scared and ignorant.  Your opponent will sense this and use it to his advantage.

What you are seeking is the strength to endure, the wisdom to respond and the ability to communicate.  Writing can help you get through this process.   Take notes, get your thoughts on paper, understand you are unique and might respond differently, so be ready to reveal what’s going on inside you at a moment’s notice.

I recently had a bad reaction to my last BCG treatment following bladder cancer surgery and went hunting for information.  Fortunately, my physical therapist had given me the name of a bladder cancer survivor and he introduced me to the Bladder Cancer Web Café out of Holland.  Their web site is full of survival stories but the presentation that stood out was Cynthia’s Corner, written by Cynthia Kinsella, President American Bladder Cancer Society and how she uses writing as a type of therapy.  Here’s part of her story.  If you are dealing with bladder cancer, I strongly recommend you follow the ABLCS blog.

Learning to fly upside down while enjoying the view by Cynthia Kinsella

While going through cancer treatment I have came to use writing as a type of therapy. It grants me the chance to put what happens to me into an order that somehow gives it meaning to me. It gives me license to be a drama queen to be totally irreverent if I please and to say things I could never say to the people I love because I would worry about upsetting them.  Looking back on the last two years as crazy as it may sound I have came to recognize the fact that the cancer has been one of the most incredible chances I have ever had for personal growth. It has taught me how precious every day is, that passing up the chance to experience joy is a grave sin and that most of us never notice how blessed we really are because we are blinded by the petty occurrences of everyday life. Who would ever think that good could come from something so terrible? But then life does have a way of surprising us when we least expect it, doesn’t it?

How to Handle an Emotional Hangover

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On a cruise ship, in the Caribbean, with my spouse. Soft rain covers the lounge chairs surrounding the pool, and the mood on the ship is subdued, on this next to the last day of our trip. Last night’s high energy, fueled by the loud calypso music and margarita’s, all but forgotten as the reality of returning to the home port in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, forces it’s way into the vacation mode our minds have been set on since our sailing last week. The daily entry in my book of intentions addresses the whisper of negativity that struggles to gain entry into my attitude. In spite of my abstinence from alcohol, I awoke with a hangover, albeit an emotional one, since seeing the rain on the window of my cabin, this morning. The solution to the “dry drunk syndrome,” a phrase with which I label this periodic lapse of attitude and which always seems to strike at some time during a vacation, is to begin focusing on what it is that I want now. I force myself to think about the facts of where I am right now. On vacation. On a cruise with my wonderful wife. ENJOYING MYSELF! As I write the words in my book, I feel the angst begin to subside. More positive thoughts begin to follow, and soon I find myself feeling better, more positive, certainly more appropriately in tune with my surroundings. Once again, I am the co-creator of my daily experience. Once again, it works!

Book Review – Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers: The Complete Conversation

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One of my muses is Sister Wendy Beckett.  Her thoughts on life, spirituality and how great art is able to influence man is captured in a little gem of a book titled Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers: The Complete Conversation.     The book is currently on sale at PBS.com.  Here’s the review I posted on Amazon.com and PBS.com.

You Will Cherish This Encounter

A cloistered catholic nun jousts with a distinguished television journalist on life, sex, art, creativity, religion and spirituality.  This interview, in book form, will challenge you from every direction.  If you desire a better understanding of “what you’re meant to be” and the concept of “something greater than ourselves,” then you should read this book.   Sister Wendy Beckett brilliantly articulates man’s greatest gift, the power to create.   This is an encounter with greatness…the vision of the master.