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How to Overcome Anxious Thoughts With Milk, a Hat, and a Post Office

How to Overcome Anxious Thoughts With Milk, a Hat, and a Post Office

I want us to play a little game. I’m going to write down some phrases and you fill in the blanks with what comes to your mind.

Ready?

Go ahead and fill in the blanks.

” Stop beating about the _______.”

“At the drop of a _______.”

“I wouldn’t be caught _______ wearing that suit”

“He hit the nail on its _______.”

“Stop crying over spilt _______.”

How’d it go?

Now I have a few questions for you.

Why did you think of the words “bush,” “hat,” “dead,” “head,” and “milk”?

And more importantly, why did it take you less than a second to remember them? After all, when was the last time you ever dealt with these phrases? Perhaps a long time ago, right? So if it was that long ago, why do you still remember them today?

Let’s try it again.

This time, come up with a new set of endings for these phrases, without for a second thinking of “bush,” “hat,” “dead,” “head,” and “milk.” Don’t think of them even for a second. If you do, you lose and you have to start over.

Ready? Now fill in the blanks.

” Stop beating about the _______.”

“At the drop of a _______.”

“I wouldn’t be caught _______ wearing that suit”

“He hit the nail on its _______.”

“Stop crying over spilt _______.”

Did it work?

As hard as you tried to not think about them, did it work?

No, it didn’t.

This is your verbal history and it’s permanently stored in your brain. And there’s a very good chance we’ll be taking these silly words with us right to our deathbeds.

Picture yourself, for a second, lying there on a hospital bed and your best friend leans over and says “Hey Justin, stop crying over spilt…” And that’s it. How do you think your head is going to finish that sentence?

This exercise was a lot of fun, wasn’t it? Or did you just feel like you wasted 2 minutes of your life? If you did, my suggestion is for you to stop crying over spilt milk.

Think about all the other kinds of mental language we deal with that is much more painful.

“You cannot survive another panic attack.”

“You cannot ignore your thoughts. You just don’t have it in you.”

“You did this to yourself, loser.”

“You never experienced a childhood because you were abandoned.”

“The worst thing about you is that you just can’t get over it.”

“You have social anxiety and people think you’re weird.”

“You have not reached your goals and that’s shameful.”

“If only you didn’t have anxiety, your life could have been different.”

“This pain will never go away.”

These are thoughts that you’ve been constantly trying to fight or negotiate with, all in order to get them to grant you a more sympathetic and compassionate ending.

“Oh sweet child, you were always great, and everything will be just fine.”

Nope. None of that comes along, and if it does, it’s quickly crushed by the other voices.

“Ya right.”

Here’s the thing.

Your mind will likely never think of anything else but “hat” whenever you hear the phrase “at the drop of a …”, even though you’ve been going through life without this “hat” nonsense forever in your head.

So how can you expect your mind to not come up with the words “failure” or “panic” or “depressed” or “anxious” (or whatever thoughts torment you), when all you do (all day, everyday) is intentionally battle against them?

If I cannot make you forget “bush,” “hat,” “dead”, “head,” and “milk,” I cannot make you forget any of your other verbal history either.

But for some reason, this tears us apart, doesn’t it?

We expect different rules to apply when it’s emotional pain we’re struggling with.

We become stubborn. We become rigid. We become non-negotiable.

We expect our lives to start only after these thoughts around our emotional pain become nicer to us.

“Please thoughts, stop telling me I’m a failure. If you can’t tell me anything nice, at least try not to say anything at all.”

And that is our mistake.

The point is not to argue that your thought is wrong. In fact, getting caught in that exercise (even in therapy) pretty much always takes us down. The thought becomes even more entangling.

When they become more entangling, we start believing even more that the conclusions or events evaluated by the thoughts are 100% correct.

But they’re not true.

They just cannot be.

Even if you’ve faced the worst forms of trauma in your life, the thought that says “You got screwed over by life,” is not true.

How do I know this? Because for it to come down to that very permanent verdict, you’d have to be at the very last second of your life when you know for sure that there’s literally nothing left.

Sure, your thought in the present might accurately describe past events — “Yes, she did get screwed over when her parents abandoned her as a child.” — but when your thought in the present starts pretending like it has the power to know the exact future, just because the mind can always create any network to make the linkages between anything and anything else seem possible, then it’s not to be trusted.

Let me explain this a little more.

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The mind can relate anything to anything.

And in a minute, I’ll show you how ridiculously true this is.

The point is that this design — bestowed on the mind by mother nature — is the very reason why the human species has gone from jungle days to building spaceships and making self-driving cars.

It’s also the reason why emotional pain can never be cured the way we want it to be.

First, wanna see how the mind can arbitrarily relate anything to anything?

Exercise: Milk and a Post Office

Level: Easy

Instructions: Go ahead and give me 2 reasons why milk is better than a post office.

Don’t dismiss this exercise because of how silly it looks and sounds.

Stay with it.

Come up with at least 2 reasons. You’ll probably come up with more if you give it time.

So how did it go? At first, you must have thought “This is ridiculous. How can I compare milk with a post office?”

And then what happened? You managed to do it anyway, didn’t you?

Milk contains calcium that is good for the bones. A post office does not.

Milk is white — a soothing, nurturing color. A post office is not.

I can get to milk right away by going over to my refrigerator. A post office is farther.

Now flip it.

Why is a post office better than milk?

Yes, that right. I’m asking you to abandon your evaluation of how milk is better. Instead, start thinking about how a post office is better.

Here’s one reason I can think of.

A post office helps me send letters to people I love. Milk doesn’t.

What are your reasons?

So now that you have your reasons why milk is better than a post office, and also some reasons why a post office is better, what is your final conclusion?

Which is better, milk or a post office?

It is here you’ll find yourself going back to your first reaction to this exercise.

“This is ridiculous. How can I compare milk with a post office?”

And you’re right. It simply cannot be true that milk is better than a post office or vice versa. Period. And yet your mind did come up with justifications to create a relation and make one better than the other.

Not just that. It then went further to justify these relations.

Who can argue with the reality that yes, milk does contain calcium that is good for the bones, while a post office does not?

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But does just knowing this make you go around telling your friends “I like milk better than a post office”? No, right? But why not? After all, your mind made the relation, so why don’t you go about living your life according to it?

This is exactly what we mean when we say that in certain contexts, the mind just cannot be trusted with its relational networks, even though there is nothing you can do to stop the mind’s process of relating.

Consider the relational networks the mind has created that are much more hurtful.

Basically, these are anything that the mind has created to link painful outcomes in the past to predicted pain in the future.

Here’s one example of a network that our mind can create to link (or relate) a bad past to a bad future:

“She got screwed over before > She will never trust again > She’ll keep pushing people away because of this distrust > She’ll always be alone in the end > She’ll never live happily, even though it was never her fault > She got screwed over by life.”

Here’s another:

“She had 2 manic depressive episodes in her twenties > She will have another now that her husband left her for another woman.”

Now just by reading this, our mind will argue that this link or association or network isn’t “arbitrary” at all. The mind will find plenty of evidence for it, because even here, it will start creating new networks to find justifications for the original relational network.

Wanna see how? Here goes:

“Studies show that 90% of people who have been through a depressive episode will have another one.”

What did the mind just do here?

It grabbed onto “evidence” to support the assumption that depression doesn’t get cured.

And we can’t argue facts as they exist in the world historically. After all, the study “did show” the results, didn’t it?

But what about the 10% who didn’t get depression ever again? Or what about another study that shows different results? Or what about a possibility that this “90%” did not hear about the “Relational Frame Theory” (that we’re discussing here) that could have saved them from another relapse?

Even here — and expectedly once again — the mind will create justifications to uphold its original relational link and now new relational links, just because it always can.

“Maybe the 10% lied. Or were delusional.”

“Maybe other studies weren’t as good as this one.”

“Maybe the Relational Frame Theory is horseshit.”

The justifications will always come.

Remember this is the same mind that can make a post office seem better than milk.

The point is not to curse the relations, or in fact the mind’s ability to make them. It is to recognize that the mind does this by default and that this ability of the mind to always be able to create some form of bad news is not a sign of a mental illness. Neither does it mean that behavior and life’s decisions have to be formed on the basis of these relations.

Usually, the most difficult networks to handle are the ones we’re trying to get rid of the most.

This is because their content is intimately linked to our deepest values, yearnings, and desires.

I don’t care about a relational network that my mind creates between milk and a post office because… who cares, right?

But when the mind is creating a network that ends with me being in a ton of pain and distress, then I care very much, don’t I?

The problem with rejecting the “arbitrariness of the mind” when it’s emotional pain we’re dealing with is that we start another losing battle — that of trying to “convince” the mind that its relational networks are wrong. That is a war we cannot win.

Why?

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Yes, you guessed it. Because once again, all your victories and successes are just a millisecond away from yet another relational network that the mind can create — just like that!

Let’s say you spend years in therapy and are finally convinced in your head and heart that this thought you have rehearsed your whole life — “I’ve been a failure” — has indeed been incorrect all along.

It took 10 years of suffering and 5 years of therapy to get you to accept that your mind tricked you.

And so now, you tell your thought something like this:

“No, I haven’t been a failure my whole life.”

“Oh yeah, but you’ve thought that your whole life, which kinda makes you a failure all this while just for thinking you’re a failure, when you shouldn’t have.”

It just doesn’t stop, does it?

Cluelessly, we keep mislabeling our failed attempts to control thoughts or control our mind from creating these cues as signs of a mental illness.

“Gosh, my inner critic is never happy. It’s true. I really am suffering from depression. I’m just an unhappy person.”

Ha!

Wanna get your inner critic to leave you alone?

Wanna get your negative thoughts to leave you alone? Wanna get your anxiety to leave you alone?

If you truly want them to leave you alone, then in exchange, you have to leave something alone.

Your mind — leave it alone.

The fight with the mind will get dirtier and more entangling, and you’ll start believing there’s no way out. Arguing with the mind to problem-solve emotional pain doesn’t work.

You know what does work? Saying to your mind “Whatever, man.”

When we move on with our plans without begging for the mind’s permission or blessings, we win.

Because then nothing can hold us back from living.

How do we get to this point?

Congratulations, you’re doing it already.

You’re understanding how the mind works and you’re cutting yourself some slack when it automatically comes up with crap you don’t like.

If you couldn’t stop the word “hat,” and if you couldn’t stop the mind from making “milk” seem better than a “post office,” then what about your anxiety thoughts?

Yes, you’re off the hook.

You are free to start your life with them around.

If you think you can’t, drink some milk and get some perspective. And if this finally works, write me a letter and mail it to me. Promise me you’ll smile at the post office.

Featured photo credit: Ivan Karasev via hd.unsplash.com

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Namita Gujral

Anxiety Coach

HSP, Highly Sensitive Person 6 Decisions a Highly Sensitive Person MUST make (Part 3/3) The Biggest Fight of the Highly Sensitive Person (Part 2/3) How to Thrive, Not Hurt, as a Highly Sensitive Person (Part 1/3) 5 Reasons to Quit Intellectualizing Your Emotions How to Overcome Anxious Thoughts With Milk, a Hat, and a Post Office

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Last Updated on December 2, 2018

How to Flow Your Way to a More Productive Life

How to Flow Your Way to a More Productive Life

Ebb and flow. Contraction and expansion. Highs and lows. It’s all about the cycles of life.

The entire course of our life follows this up and down pattern of more and then less. Our days flow this way, each following a pattern of more energy, then less energy, more creativity and periods of greater focus bookended by moments of low energy when we cringe at the thought of one more meeting, one more call, one more sentence.

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The key is in understanding how to use the cycles of ebb and flow to our advantage. The ability to harness these fluctuations, understand how they affect our productivity and mood and then apply that knowledge as a tool to improve our lives is a valuable strategy that few individuals or corporations have mastered.

Here are a few simple steps to start using this strategy today:

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Review Your Past Flow

Take just a few minutes to look back at how your days and weeks have been unfolding. What time of the day are you the most focused? Do you prefer to be more social at certain times of the day? Do you have difficulty concentrating after lunch or are you energized? Are there days when you can’t seem to sit still at your desk and others when you could work on the same project for hours?

Do you see a pattern starting to emerge? Eventually you will discover a sort of map or schedule that charts your individual productivity levels during a given day or week.  That’s the first step. You’ll use this information to plan your days going forward.

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Schedule According to Your Flow Pattern

Look at the types of things you do each day…each week. What can you move around so that it’s a better fit for you? Can you suggest to your team that you schedule meetings for late morning if you can’t stand to be social first thing? Can you schedule detailed project work or highly creative tasks, like writing or designing when you are best able to focus? How about making sales calls or client meetings on days when you are the most social and leaving billing or reports until another time when you are able to close your door and do repetitive tasks.

Keep in mind that everyone is different and some things are out of our control. Do what you can. You might be surprised at just how flexible clients and managers can be when they understand that improving your productivity will result in better outcomes for them.

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Account for Big Picture Fluctuations

Look at the bigger picture. Consider what happens during different months or times during the year. Think about what is going on in the other parts of your life. When is the best time for you to take on a new project, role or responsibility? Take into account other commitments that zap your energy. Do you have a sick parent, a spouse who travels all the time or young children who demand all of your available time and energy?

We all know people who ignore all of this advice and yet seem to prosper and achieve wonderful success anyway, but they are usually the exception, not the rule. For most of us, this habitual tendency to force our bodies and our brains into patterns of working that undermine our productivity result in achieving less than desired results and adding more stress to our already overburdened lives.

Why not follow the ebb and flow of your life instead of fighting against it?

    Featured photo credit: Nathan Dumlao via unsplash.com

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