After a chat with a friend today, I have been reminded how sometimes, not only is it not easy to just ‘drop into our Inner World’, but that our inner peace and physical health can be sorely stymied by Big A getting in the way.
Who’s Big A? It is the Anxiety Gremlin. You know the one. Interrupts your day with extreme scenarios such as:
“If I do that, I’ll die!”,
“If I say that, they’ll laugh at me!”,
“I can’t do that, I’ll fail!”
“That spider will kill me if I go near it!”
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t trust anyone.”
Big A is so sneaky, it pretends to be your thoughts. It even talks in the first person singular “I”, just so you take what it says as true.
Not only that, it keeps you out of the Right Here, Right Now moment, which is where your body, actual reality, and potential to do something lies. How does it do that? Big A will sucker you by reminding you of a conversation you had the other day that didn’t go well. Or it will project a scene in the future of something bad happening to you. Either way, you’ll end up mentally stuck in guilt, grief or anger in your past, or on hyper-alert, fighting for survival in a made up future. Oh yeah, Big A is a doozy of a gremlin.
Thing is, most of us haven’t been brought up to be aware that Big A even exists. It sneaks in when you’re little, given voice by the fearful comments from adults around you, then fed by your own insecurities as you grow up. Before you know it, Big A is looming unseen at the back of your mind, drip feeding poisonous or paralysing thoughts into your unsuspecting mind.
Now here’s the thing: your subconscious can’t distinguish between what’s real or what is fantasy.
I’ve emphasised that because I want you to pay close attention to what that means. What does it mean that your sub- or unconscious (depending on who you’re talking to) mind doesn’t know the difference between what is happening and what we’re imagining?
It’s a matter of biology
What you think alters not only your brain’s chemistry, but also your body’s chemistry. There’s a whole branch of science dedicated to this which is relatively new, called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI):
Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), also referred to as psychoendoneuroimmunology (PENI), is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body. (Quote thanks to Auntie Google)
“… And those hormones affect not only the brain, but every aspect of body and mind; many memories are stored throughout the body, as changes in the structure of receptors at the cellular level. “The body,” Pert concludes, “is the unconscious mind!”.” (Quotes thanks to The Smithsonian Mag)
So, translating to a physical example: if you think of a someone you love, your pupils will dilate and you may feel a warm sensation in your chest. This is because peptides specific to this response are generated with your thinking and changes occur at a cellular level in your body. Think about how scared you can get if you watch a horror movie, or play an action-packed PC game. And you don’t just get the associated thoughts do you? You get the emotions and the physical reactions to match. Which is why we love to watch movies and play games.
What also happens though, is that these ‘molecules of emotion’ (check out Candace Pert’s book of the same name) can work to destroy a tumour by being set in motion by visualisation or meditation. Think of the potential!
But back to Big A for a moment.
How is this gremlin giving you high blood pressure? Panic attacks? Sleepless nights?
It’s priming your imagination with false scenarios. Okay, some of them may have a vague basis in reality, which your rational mind may take as being a cause to let them in. But I’d suggest being on the lookout for Big A.
“So how can I stop Big A and get rid of anxiety?”
Method 1 – Engaging the Gatekeeper
Big A is like a mischievous monkey – or it’s evil twin the Gremlin if you’re unlucky – which takes delight in your distress. I reckon if Big A were real (wait, it’s not?), then I’d want to ask a Gatekeeper in my mind to kindly step forward and do its job. Let’s face it, if you’ve got Big A in there, I’ll bet if you look around you can find your Gatekeeper.
Make some quiet time where you can be alone and undisturbed for a while and consciously call your Gatekeeper to you. Okay, you may feel daft at this point – but hey, you’re the one that’s letting a gremlin give you high blood pressure, right! So give it a go. If it were me, (and yes, I’ve done this – I used to suffer badly from anxiety and depression from childhood), I’d imagine myself in a nice environment, sitting on a bench, and ask my Gatekeeper (whose intention is my highest good) to step forward so I could talk to it.
As I have a fertile imagination, I would probably see, sense, imagine, or pretend, that it was there. I could get really creative and imagine what it looked like. And of course, then have a conversation with it. How would that convo go? Something like this:
“I now call to me my Gatekeeper, whose intention is my highest good.”
I imagine the Gatekeeper appearing and what it looks like. I may invite it to sit next to me on the bench. Or not.
“Gatekeeper, thank you for coming. What is your name?” (I like to get real with this).
The Gatekeeper may say any name as simple as “Fred” or as way out as “Astronominous”. Or it may simply say, “Gatekeeper”.
“Gatekeeper, I have a problem with Big A who is feeding me with all sorts of scary scenarios that I keep taking seriously. I can’t always tell the difference between what’s a real concern, and what is an imagined worse case scenario, and it’s causing me to have severe anxiety.”
“What would you like me to do?”
“I want you to be on the alert for when Big A throws in a past or future scenario that causes me to become fearful, anxious, angry, upset or guilty. But I want to be clear about anything of real concern, so I can do something practical to sort it out. Will you help me with that?”
“Yes, I can and I will. Is there anything else?”
“Yes, I’d like you to alert me to Big A’s presence by saying “HELLO!” really loudly in my head, so it cuts through Big A’s thoughts.”
“I will do that. I can also make your nose tickle if you like.”
“How long would you like me to do this for?”
“From now until I tell you to stop please.”
At that point, I’d say “thank you and goodbye” and watch the Gatekeeper going to the place where it can do its work. Basically, simply leaving.
After that, I’d remind myself every morning to take notice of the Gatekeeper’s prompts.
Of course, you may not get a nose tickle, but a red flag waved in your imagination. Have a go at whatever you feel attracted to doing, as this is your system that you are getting to work FOR you, rather than AGAINST you.
Now, even though you’ve identified yourself as being creative, have a go at reading the next method. It may work for you. And it will lead you on to Method 3.
Method 2 – Mindfulness, Observing your thoughts
In other words, being your own Gatekeeper.
On a daily basis, begin by becoming more familiar with your inner self-talk. We’ve all got it; it runs constantly. Studies have shown that the bigger percentage of our self-talk is derogatory towards ourselves. You may even notice that you see patterns of sickness occurring when you have been having more negative thoughts coupled with difficult emotions. And obviously, if you’re going through a major life change, such as a divorce, new job, loss of a relative, for instance, then you may be noticing that your thinking is more anxiety provoking than normal. That is often the case, so don’t worry that there’s something wrong with you. There isn’t.
It is simply that an ancient part of your brain, that was formed to keep your ancestors alive from the moment giant reptiles walked the earth, is switched on to be hyper vigilant. It’s the amygdala.
The amygdala (Latin, corpus amygdaloideum) is an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. Shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions, the amygdala forms part of the limbic system. In humans and other animals, this sub-cortical brain structure is linked to both fear responses and pleasure.
The amygdala gets switched on when we’re anxious, and can overdo its job, creating extreme fear reactions to mildly concerning or even innocuous situations, when Big A does it’s job.
Practising a simple relaxation technique can completely reverse this:
When we’re pitched into an amygdala hijack, whether intense or low level but ongoing, we’re in sympathetic nervous system arousal. As a chronic condition that’s not a good state. While we’re hijacked [by Big A], the alarm circuits trigger the fight-flight-or-freeze response that pumps stress hormones into the body with a range of negative results, such as lowering the effectiveness of our immune response. The opposite state, parasympathetic arousal, occurs when we’re relaxed.
So with Method 2, you cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts, becoming more and more conscious of the thoughts which are triggering your flight/flight reaction.
For instance, you may realise you are thinking along the lines of:
“I will make a fool of myself. They will laugh at me. I will get kicked off the team. I won’t be able to get a job. I’ll have no money. I’ll lose my house. My wife will leave me. I’ll end up destitute. And die of starvation.”
Generally when the amygdala’s involved, death is the end case. Which is why you get into survival mode. It’s a great mechanism, but better activated when we’re actually in danger, like when we’re being chased down the high street by a 12 foot dinosaur. Oh that hasn’t happened to you?
So, once aware of your own particular death scenario, you can then, gently choose to replace those thoughts with more supportive ones – or even simply allow the thoughts to be there, like clouds floating over the sky. You just don’t get caught up in them.
“… and then I die. ”
“Hang on, where’s the immediate proof of that?”
“What happens if I actually succeed?”
“Can I suspend my disbelief that a positive outcome won’t happen?”
“… and then I die.”
“That’s a thought about dying. It’s there, but I don’t choose to interact with it.”
“I see a cloud shaped like a fear-scenario floating across the sky of my mind. I let it float on by.”
“My thoughts are not me. I observe them and choose which ones I focus on.”
Method for all: Applied Relaxation Technique – it’s simple but effective
Based on the applied relaxation technique (ART) that has had a massive amount of study proving its effectiveness on reducing anxiety and panic attacks. I have a CD called the One Minute Relaxation Technique CD which has proven to be very popular and effective. It contains 4 x 9-minute relaxations which, like ART, takes you through tensing/relaxing your muscle groups; relaxing with the breath; relaxing with a cue word (‘relax’); and relaxing while moving. By using the tracks over a course of 28 days, this has been shown to drastically assist clients move from anxious to relaxed.
You can read more about how it ART and other mindfulness relaxations work, here.
Basically, mindfulness relaxation or meditation techniques help to reset the amydala so that it stands down from panic to calm.
By focusing on your body, breathing and the cue word, you basically completely stymie Big A.
How? That’s an article for another day. Just for now, if you suffer from an Anxiety Gremlin, give one or more of the above techniques a go. Big A may put up a bit of a fight at first, as you might expect because it’s getting the big Heave-Ho.
Just keep practising daily and you may well be pleasantly surprised at the results. I’d love to hear from you.