To experience anxiety, you must first have an anxiety-producing thought. For example, if you were to step off of a curb and almost get hit by a car, your heart would start to race; you might have a slight pit in your stomach and break out in into a cold sweat. Yet nothing touched you. It was your thought that you might get hit that caused the secretion of chemicals that resulted in the physical response. It is the combination of a thought and a physiologic response that constitutes an emotion. If you are lying on a beach in Hawaii taking in the sun, the reason you feel relaxed is because your body is secreting chemicals that are similar to Valium. The reason that Valium-type drugs are effective is because your body has receptors for these chemicals to relax you. However, if you are on the same beach thinking about your boss that has been treating you poorly, how are you going to feel? Again, it is the thoughts that determine what emotional state you are going to be in. It is not the beach that determines whether you are going to feel relaxed.
I have one additional observation regarding the development of an emotional response to a thought. The mind works in images. The mind has a thought that elicits an image. The basis of the emotional response is based on the image, not directly from the thought.
The implication of this sequence is that progressive anxiety is a result from the reinforcement of imagery. These images become intense over a lifetime, causing progressive anxiety.
The other phenomenon that occurs is that the combination of imagery and thoughts over time starts to become a “story.” This is what I think becomes deadly in regards to mental health. We all do it. We do it all the time every day. The stories we develop about ourselves are deadly because we start to interpret events that are somewhat random in terms of these stories.
Golf is a great example of how this works. I have a good golfing friend who, a few years ago, became convinced that he just “couldn’t play any more.” As I watched him play, his game seemed pretty much the same to me. He had developed a couple of small swing flaws that was adding a couple of strokes to his game. But every time he hit a bad shot, it just confirmed in his mind that he just wasn’t good anymore. Whenever he hit a good shot, which was fairly frequently, he felt that he was just lucky. If he had just taken a couple of simple lessons, he had a high chance of actually improving his game. A couple of years later, he just quit playing golf.
Recently, a buddy of mine had gone through a series of failed relationships. He became discouraged and decided that he just “wasn’t good at relationships.” Instead of working on developing some better relationship skills, he just gave up. Again, every encounter became something that reinforced this story. He also became chronically frustrated, which did not improve his situation. Regardless of physical or social attributes one might possess, anger is not attractive.
The problem though is a little more serious than it would appear on the surface. Think back to the model that was discussed earlier about how we all tend to deal with unpleasant thoughts. I put forth the idea that we are not taught the skills to deal with these thoughts, images, and stories. We suffer, suppress, or mask these anxiety-producing circuits. With both the suffering and suppressing scenarios, these neurologic circuits become reinforced. The masking behavior may not reinforce the circuits, but it also does not effectively deal with them.
What are your stories? What are your stories about you, your family, your spouse, work, etc?
It is the story in your head at a given moment that is your reality. It is based on imagery. It is time to “wake up.”