The Feedback Loop

When I was in the worst month of my anxiety, my brain and body were in a giant, unceasing feedback loop. My body, being over-activated because of heightened medication levels, was communicating to me that I was in danger. My heart was racing, my body was tense, my jaw was clenched. The symptoms, to my mind, were signaling a flight or fight response. My body was acting like it was in danger. So, it makes sense that my brain followed, searching for things to defend me from. Which was pretty much everything.

That plane overhead? It’s going to come crashing down.

I’m going to get into a car accident on the way home from work.

That food I ate for lunch? It’s going to make me sick.

That thing I said yesterday? So and so is going to be mad at me because of it.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, it’s actually a triangle- your thoughts impact your feelings impact your behaviors impact your thoughts, and so on. But here, I just want to focus on thoughts and feelings, and how they feed each other. This is something I’ve only recently began to observe and understand.

I had just favored a psychotherapy approach rather than a cognitive behavioral way of thinking. I was always fascinated with the idea that things from one’s past could lurk in one’s subconscious and impact their actions and behaviors without them knowing. I figured that my current anxieties were based on previous traumas. And they are. But, the thing is, all you can really do with that approach is to develop mindfulness of how these traumas impact your daily life, so as to notice and minimize their impact. In grad school, we used to talk about the “corrective emotional experience.” I used to picture some magical, cathartic “aha!” moment, where the wound stopped hurting and never hurt again.  Through my own therapy, I learned that this doesn’t happen.

What happens is that you gain an awareness for the issue and it’s triggers, as well as an acceptance for the way it makes you feel, which does help it to hurt less. From there, you learn how to take care of yourself when you are feeling that way.

So now, I’m finding that, because my anxiety is less in my body, it is less in my mind. However, there is still work to do. Now, my body isn’t feeding my thoughts, but my thoughts are still feeding my body. It’s easier to be cognizant of how this is happening, now that it is coming more from one side and not so much from both.

For example, when I feel my body tense up as I’m lying in bed early in the morning, I now recognize that it is related to my concerns over the day. Will I be anxious today? Will I complete all the tasks that I have ahead of me?

As I work through my CBT workbook, Mind Over Mood, I hope to improve this.


Of Worries and Tic Tacs

I’ve been reading through the book The Worry Trick by David A. Carbonell. I recommend this book for anyone who experiences generalized anxiety. The author explains that for some people with anxiety issues, some of the cognitive restructuring methods from CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) aren’t helpful. He offered some alternative methods to beat anxiety and worry.

He suggests an exercise early in the book to help the reader become mindful of their worries. Every time one catches themselves in the act of worrying, they should take out a pack of tic tacs or mints, which they are to carry with them, and eat one.

The exercise isn’t meant to do anything other than to help you pay attention to when you are worrying. It’s simple, but I’m finding it to be very effective. It’s a small action, but just enough to disrupt the pattern of worrying. See, whenever I find myself thinking “what if,” the next thought that now comes into my mind is, “that’s another tic tac!” And then I don’t engage in the runaway train of worrisome thoughts. It’s interrupted right then and there. It’s so much easier to catch the runaway train right when it starts to run away, rather than to stop it once it’s been running awhile!

I started doing this at noon on September 11, and I’ll be doing this for one week. On day 6, I’ve been through more tic tac boxes than I thought I would go through. I’m halfway through my fourth.  There are 38 tic tacs in a regular sized pack. That means I’ve been through 133 worry tic tacs. (And, this is under the assumption that I’ve been cognizant of every anxious thought I’ve had over the course of the week, which is unlikely.)

The first step towards changing anxious thoughts is noticing them. Once I catch myself thinking the words “what if,” now that I am more aware of it, I try to replace the second part of the sentence with something else. A favorite way to do this is to play “what if God was one of us?” in my head. (Other songs with “what if” work just as well!)

Our Time is Now

Flower Power
Flower Power

I used to say that I wished I had been born earlier, so that I could participate in all of the great social movements of the 1960s and 1970s: the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, protests against the war in Vietnam, the environmental movement that gave us Earth Day . . . and it would’ve been fun to have been around for Woodstock, too. There’s something exciting about the idea of being a part of a powerful movement for change.

The more I see of current events, the more I realize that those dramatic opportunities for progress are not a thing of the past. We have just as many high stakes battles to fight now:

  • We need to battle the denial and apathy that are holding us back from taking action to fight global climate change.
  • Women are still not being taken seriously, as we are being prevented from being able to make some of our own healthcare decisions.
  • Children and teens are dying as a result of unnecessary gun violence almost every day.
  • Gay and lesbian people are not yet permitted to marry in every state, and transgender people are frequently the target of bullying and terrorist acts.
  • We need to question US military presence in many other countries, most particularly those in the Middle East, as well as the militarization of the police force within our borders.
  • The middle class is rapidly shrinking due to inflation and income inequality. Corporations need to be held accountable.
  • The members of our government need to learn how to put partisan politics aside, to compromise, and to treat each other like adults.
  • And, despite what anyone may say, the battle for civil rights is clearly not over.

These movements, too, can make the history books if we play our cards right. But, we need to put our smartphones down, get outside, and actually do something.

The time to act is now. 

Will we seize it?