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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

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Last Updated on January 3, 2020

The 10 Essential Habits of Positive People

The 10 Essential Habits of Positive People

Are you waiting for life events to turn out the way you want so that you can feel more positive about your life? Do you find yourself having pre-conditions to your sense of well-being, thinking that certain things must happen for you to be happier? Do you think there is no way that your life stresses can make you anything other than “stressed out” and that other people just don’t understand?  If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you might find yourself lingering in the land of negativity for too long!

The following are some tips to keep positive no matter what comes your way. This post will help you stop looking for what psychologists call “positivity” in all the wrong places!  Here are the ten essential habits of positive people.

1. Positive people don’t confuse quitting with letting go.

Instead of hanging on to ideas, beliefs, and even people that are no longer healthy for them, they trust their judgement to let go of negative forces in their lives.  Especially in terms of relationships, they subscribe to The Relationship Prayer which goes:

 I will grant myself the ability to trust the healthy people in my life … 

To set limits with, or let go of, the negative ones … 

And to have the wisdom to know the DIFFERENCE!

 2.  Positive people don’t just have a good day – they make a good day.

Waiting, hoping and wishing seldom have a place in the vocabulary of positive individuals. Rather, they use strong words that are pro-active and not reactive. Passivity leads to a lack of involvement, while positive people get very involved in constructing their lives. They work to make changes to feel better in tough times rather than wish their feelings away.

3. For the positive person, the past stays in the past.

Good and bad memories alike stay where they belong – in the past where they happened. They don’t spend much time pining for the good ol’ days because they are too busy making new memories now. The negative pulls from the past are used not for self-flagellation or unproductive regret, but rather productive regret where they use lessons learned as stepping stones towards a better future.

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4. Show me a positive person and I can show you a grateful person.

The most positive people are the most grateful people.  They do not focus on the potholes of their lives.  They focus on the pot of gold that awaits them every day, with new smells, sights, feelings and experiences.  They see life as a treasure chest full of wonder.

5. Rather than being stuck in their limitations, positive people are energized by their possibilities.

Optimistic people focus on what they can do, not what they can’t do.  They are not fooled to think that there is a perfect solution to every problem, and are confident that there are many solutions and possibilities.  They are not afraid to attempt new solutions to old problems, rather than spin their wheels expecting things to be different this time.  They refuse to be like Charlie Brown expecting that this time Lucy will not pull the football from him!

6. Positive people do not let their fears interfere with their lives!

Positive people have observed that those who are defined and pulled back by their fears never really truly live a full life. While proceeding with appropriate caution, they do not let fear keep them from trying new things. They realize that even failures are necessary steps for a successful life. They have confidence that they can get back up when they are knocked down by life events or their own mistakes, due to a strong belief in their personal resilience.

7. Positive people smile a lot!

When you feel positive on the inside it is like you are smiling from within, and these smiles are contagious. Furthermore, the more others are with positive people, the more they tend to smile too! They see the lightness in life, and have a sense of humor even when it is about themselves. Positive people have a high degree of self-respect, but refuse to take themselves too seriously!

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8. People who are positive are great communicators.

They realize that assertive, confident communication is the only way to connect with others in everyday life.  They avoid judgmental, angry interchanges, and do not let someone else’s blow up give them a reason to react in kind. Rather, they express themselves with tact and finesse.  They also refuse to be non-assertive and let people push them around. They refuse to own problems that belong to someone else.

9. Positive people realize that if you live long enough, there are times for great pain and sadness.

One of the most common misperceptions about positive people is that to be positive, you must always be happy. This can not be further from the truth. Anyone who has any depth at all is certainly not happy all the time.  Being sad, angry, disappointed are all essential emotions in life. How else would you ever develop empathy for others if you lived a life of denial and shallow emotions? Positive people do not run from the gamut of emotions, and accept that part of the healing process is to allow themselves to experience all types of feelings, not only the happy ones. A positive person always holds the hope that there is light at the end of the darkness.  

10. Positive person are empowered people – they refuse to blame others and are not victims in life.

Positive people seek the help and support of others who are supportive and safe.They limit interactions with those who are toxic in any manner, even if it comes to legal action and physical estrangement such as in the case of abuse. They have identified their own basic human rights, and they respect themselves too much to play the part of a victim. There is no place for holding grudges with a positive mindset. Forgiveness helps positive people become better, not bitter.

How about you?  How many habits of positive people do you personally find in yourself?  If you lack even a few of these 10 essential habits, you might find that the expected treasure at the end of the rainbow was not all that it was cracked up to be. How could it — if you keep on bringing a negative attitude around?

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I wish you well in keeping positive, because as we all know, there is certainly nothing positive about being negative!

Featured photo credit: Janaína Castelo Branco via flickr.com

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