Anxiety: A Widespread Problem
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.” As a young adult, I had serious problems with anxiety including panic attacks, and I would like to share some of my learning experiences including the ultimate “cure” anyone can use.
For many years, traveling alone even a few miles was a palm-sweating ordeal. But by a great turn of fortune, one of our earliest clients at Lawrimore Communications was a psychological counseling group that specialized in treating agoraphobia and panic attacks. Their method then was to have patients completely relax and listen to cassette tapes, which were recordings of the lead therapist interacting with patients who had recovered and had joined her to help others.
Nothing worked for me. Until …
Discovering the Voice in the Back of Your Head
One day I was interviewing one of the therapists and complained to him that I had listened to all the tapes more than once but still had anxious and borderline panic feelings hitting me unpredictably, especially when I was driving alone. He said to me quite simply, “You are not paying attention to the voice in the back of your head. That is where the problem is coming from.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. But on the way from his office back to mine, driving alone, I caught a thought way in the back of my mind, just barely conscious, “What if I have another panic attack?”
Suddenly I realized that these thoughts were the actual cause of my problems! I was scaring myself with “what-if” thoughts, which caused me to be anxious, which made me fear I was about to have another panic attack, which made me more anxious until sometimes I did indeed have another panic attack.
Since then I have discovered the tremendous power of self-talk, as it is often called. Other people I have discussed this with are not aware that there are different conversations going on inside their minds. And they are certainly not aware that they can control those conversations fairly easily.
In my case whenever I heard any kind of negative thought in my mind, I would mentally “stamp it out” with a big rubber stamp going STAMP STAMP STAMP over the negative thought. Then I would immediately replace it with a positive thought that was often the opposite of the negative thought. In my case my “universal positive thought” was “I am calm and in control.” By repeating this over and over, I did indeed achieve calm and control, and have never had another panic attack again. I can travel long distances alone without fear. I know the solution is always to control my thoughts.
Do Not Worry About Tomorrow
Worry is a similar problem with a similar solution. Worry is a form of anxious thinking, often along the lines of “What is going to happen to me?” or “What can I do to escape this terrible situation?” Admittedly there is a fine line between worry and anxiety on one hand, and planning or anticipating the future on the other. But that fine line separates anxious, negative, unpleasant feelings that can keep you awake at night, from calm, rational thought, planning and preparation.
In a well-known passage in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus is reported to have said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus began his Manual for Living (Enchiridion) with these words:
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.”
A major flaw in most worrying is fretting over things you cannot control. You can control your thoughts and actions, as Epictetus states, but you cannot control other people and their behaviors, or things which are “slavish” like mind-altering drugs. Instead, control your thoughts by paying attention to worrisome thoughts that pop into your head and stamp them out, replacing them with positive thoughts like, “There is no point in worrying about things I can’t control. Let me focus on what I can control and let external events unfold as they will. Then I will respond as needed.”
Again this does not mean that a Pollyanna lack of preparation is the wisest course. You can still rationally consider several possible alternative courses of action or scenarios, and consider what would be your best response or strategy in each case. In fact this kind of rational analysis can itself diminish irrational worrying and make you better prepared for any future eventuality.
There Really is a Power of Positive Thinking
Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power Of Positive Thinking was a worldwide sensation when it was published in the early 1950s and, according to Wikipedia, has sold over 5 million copies and been translated into 40 languages.
In subsequent more cynical years, this approach to life was pooh-poohed as hopelessly naïve and unrealistic. But the fact remains, today and always due to human nature, that positive thinking trumps negative thinking, and negative thinking is a root cause of myriad human problems and so-called “mental illnesses.” You can negative-think yourself into depression or suicide. Now if someone comes along and says with a big smile, “You must think positive,” that is not going to do you much good.
Positive thinking is like weight lifting, marathon running, piano mastery or professional sports – it’s all about the practice, practice, practice. Never let a negative thought survive in your head. Consider it toxic. Get rid of it immediately and replace it with a positive thought that is its antidote.
Many people find that daily positive thinking in the form of affirmations are a helpful way to practice a positive outlook. An affirmation can be something like, “I greet other people with a positive attitude and warmth” or “I strengthen my energy with daily aerobic exercise.” Make your own affirmations, write them down and repeat them every day, or use one of the many apps for iPhone and Android available online. This can serve as a preventative against destructive negative thoughts which can creep into your mind and help you abolish anxiety and worry for the rest of your life.