Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder. This looks different for each individual. However, one common manifestation of anxiety is avoidance, not being able to engage in enjoyable activities.
The brain is an amazing thing, but at times it can be a jerk. The Amygdala and Hippocampus are a part of the brain that is designed to sense danger and threats. Our brains are hard-wired to do this and at times it comes in handy. When we are alone and hear a noise or start to smell smoke, we want to be alert and make sure we are not in danger. The problem comes when we over exaggerate a perceived threat or our anxiety begins to cause disruption in our daily lives and functioning. Maybe you are concerned about what others will think or say about you and you choose not to go out with friends. Or perhaps your new job requires presentations and public speaking but your mind is telling you things like, ‘you’ll mess up’, or ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’. Your mind thinks it’s protecting you from embarrassment but it ends up turning that perceived threat into a paralyzing enemy. It keeps you from enjoying and living your life!
The good news is, IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY. You can train your brain to become more flexible and as such, accept those more uncomfortable thoughts along with the positive ones. For some, that can seem disappointing. Many clients come to me hoping to eliminate these thoughts or emotions. That would be wonderful but not exactly realistic. Our thoughts come and go and are mostly out of our control. If you are not convinced, let’s try an experiment. For the next minute, I want you to NOT think about purple elephants. You can think about anything but purple elephants. Go ahead; try it. Just don’t think about purple elephants. I’ll check in with you after a minute. So, how did that go? I’m guessing the only thing you thought about were purple elephants! When we start to feel anxious in relation to a certain thought, our natural inclination is ‘get rid of it’, or maybe, ‘I shouldn’t think that.’ By fighting against that thought, you actually give it more attention which then just increases the uncomfortable emotion. What if you stopped fighting and simply allowed the thought to be what it is, a thought. It can’t hurt you or do anything to you!
That realization is powerful but also easier said than done. In order to build this flexibility and accept these uncomfortable thoughts or emotions takes time and practice. To start, imagine you are on a riverbank, watching the water go downstream. While you’re watching, you notice leaves passing by. Now imagine as the leaves pass, your thoughts are written on these leaves and once they pass by, they’re gone! They can’t reach up and get you; you aren’t reaching in the water to get them. You are simply noticing the thought as they come up and watching them pass by and disappear.
Practice this a few minutes each day, really practice, and notice if you are able to stop getting hooked by these uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. Remember, you are not trying to get rid of thoughts and emotions but make room for them to simply exist without taking you for a ride down the emotional roller coaster.
The less time you spend fighting those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, the more time you are able to focus on the things you like and enjoy! It might sound backward, but making room for those thoughts and feelings can allow you to also make room for things you have been wanting to try! What is something you have been too anxious or depressed to do or experience? Are you tired of these emotions determining your life or claiming so much of your life? What are you willing to experience to get what you want out of life? Take a chance with this exercise and experience the new you in this new year! All of God’s many blessings for you and yours in 2021!
By Christina Allegri