Welcome to thinkingasaction. Here you’ll find some fresh ideas about how feelings work; one that challenges the conventional ideas on most Internet sites. The latter encourage you to think your feelings are caused by situations and the challenges you face. But this is only one way of looking at it. Here you’ll find ideas that put you back in control.
The destruction and misery in Putin’s war in Ukraine are absolutely beyond belief. Most Russians appear to support this ‘special operation’. But they do this only because of what they are told. The information or narrative they hear is heavily controlled by the state. If we lived in Russia we would probably support the war. Even Russians with relatives in Ukraine who are told by them about what is happening find it hard to believe. This is the power of narratives.
The narratives we are constantly exposed to matter. It can be hard for us to see any alternatives.
Two hundred years ago psychological distress was usually seen as caused by possession by demons. In the 19th century the idea of mental illness gained ground.
Possession by demons was replaced by possession by illness.
This was a step forward but this narrative has become so powerful that all manner of our ordinary problems of living are put down to any one of a host of conditions or disorders. Diagnostic Inflation is the order of the day. Since the pandemic everyone mentions mental health; every news presenter, commentator, our neighbours, and even the guy who delivers our parcels. They nearly all sing from the same hymn sheet: They insist that these conditions and disorders happen to us because of life’s difficulties. What is missing from this all pervasive narrative is us as an active agent trying to make sense of our lives.
Someone recently described how his thoughts felt like a washing machine of negativity. He’d been feeling anxious for some time and was facing an important family event he’d organised. A common enough experience but how can we make sense of it. He was familiar with some of the ideas on thinkingasaction but couldn’t turn the washing machine off.
The Speeding Car (see Thinking Tools) tells us anxiety is something we are doing; that we feel anxious when we predict something that we don’t want. . If we can get our heads round this it can make a huge difference. Many people I talk to have a lightbulb moment when we discuss The Speeding Car. However, even when it feels like a revelation people often find it very difficult to put the ideas into practice. Why is this?
The culture we live in takes a very different view of anxiety. It tells us we ‘suffer from’ or ‘have’ anxiety. This turns anxiety into a thing that has a life outside of what we are doing and thinking. Intense or ongoing anxiety is seen as a condition or disorder. The way we think, our ideas about how things work, what we want, and how we think about ourselves, usually don’t get a mention. The Speeding Car offers a very different view and puts us at the heart of our experience. If we want to see anxiety as an ordinary psychological act it is important to see culture doesn’t help us. It is hard to overestimate just how subtle and pervasive its influence is. Cultural ideas about anxiety get us to focus on our feelings not on the thinking that lies behind them. In this way it prevents us from seeing the importance of our thoughts.
Once we see how culture obscures the ordinary psychology of feeling anxious, we need also to recognise how ordinary thinking works.
Another thought experiment under Thinking Tools is The Decorated Room. It describes how thinking is made up of choices about what to focus on, how we judge it and how much we think it matters. It illustrates how we can easily get drawn into big ideas about ourselves and the things that happen. If something doesn’t work out the way we’d like we can easily end up blaming ourselves by drawing big negative conclusions about ourselves. We compare ourselves with others and conclude ”we are different from other people”, “we are weak”, “we’ve always been an anxious person”. These big ideas carry a lot of emotion. When we’re feeling anxious or down these ideas only make us feel worse. They make the washing machine spin faster. This is the ordinary stuff we all do at times. Some such big ideas are always a part of any intense distress and we need to see the power that thinking them has because at the end of the day they are unnecessary and simply not true.
The Decorated Room is a good example of how our thoughts easily escalate. If we insist on thinking “we are a weak person” or “there is something wrong with us”, we only make ourselves feel worse. If anxiety arises when we predict something and at the same time don’t want it, we can see our focus should not be on whether we ‘have anxiety’ or are ‘an anxious person’ but on how we act and think in the here-and-now. If we feel anxious for an extended period, it is because we keep thinking anxiously. Anxiety is not a thing with a life of its own, but it is made up of separate acts of thinking anxiously. It lasts as long as we keep thinking something bad might happen. If we think these thoughts with conviction, allowing no doubt, we feel worse. If we find ourselves feeling continually anxious it is helpful to recognise the individual pieces of our anxiety jigsaw.
The Decorated Room also offers an insight into how we develop moods or frames of mind such as an ongoing state of anxiety. If in our Decorated Room we focus on an imperfection and draw bigger and bigger conclusions until we are believing that “most things we do are not good enough” and that “the future will only be filled with more failure and unhappiness”, when we leave our Room that frame of mind colours how we see the next situation. On the other hand, if we focus on the same imperfection and only go as far as thinking “we should have done better but so be it”, this conclusion won’t necessarily have any relevance to the next situation we find ourselves in. In this way we can understand an ongoing feeling of anxiety as a sequence of anxious thoughts about a sequence of situations. Each anxious thought/action is a piece of the jigsaw that makes up a picture of an ongoing anxious state.
So, once we’re anxious we are more likely to think anxiously about the next thing we think about it. This is an ordinary part of the dynamics of our thinking. It applies to our negative thinking and our positive thinking.
When we’re in washing machine mode our thoughts flip from one thing to the next. This couldn’t be described as comfortable, but it is a natural state that any of us can generate if we think in certain ways. It is not evidence of a condition or disorder. If our thoughts were positive rather than anxious, we’d be in an excited, pleasurable state.
The Decorated Room tells us that thinking involves making choices about what we focus on, how we judge it and what we think it means or how much it matters. It is an example of the very different ways we can think about the same thing. The Decorated Room describes the ordinary dynamics of thinking. It does not suggest that we could ever reach a point where we can manage our thinking to the extent we never take a negative view or are never in washing machine mode. Instead it shows us that much of our thinking is outside of our immediate awareness and that it is very complex and fast. It suggests our aim can only be to manage our thinking a little better, so we can more easily turn off the washing machine.
As we try to help ourselves out of feeling constantly anxious, we need to focus less on our feelings and more on how we are thinking about each situation that comes up. A constant feeling of anxiety can only be maintained by a constant stream of anxious thoughts, each an act of thinking that keeps the washing machine spinning.
Lastly, we need to be patient. We are complex creatures and our thinking is dynamic and multi-layered. Change can be hard work. As we become more aware of the way we approach situations we will find that sometimes we manage to moderate or change our anxious thoughts. It is useful to celebrate these small steps. We shouldn’t focus on the fact that we might still feel anxious much of the time. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Not that I am suggesting it will necessarily be a long journey. Once we see how feelings of anxiety really come from how we are thinking about specific things we can begin to apply this idea to many situations.
Do you want to take back control? Do you want to overcome feelings that hold you back? Come back to this page as often as you like. Read other pages on this website to reinforce the message. Better still, for a fuller understanding of anxiety, read The Origin of Anxieties by Charles Merrett. It is available (paper and kindle) at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Origin-Anxieties-Charles-Merrett/dp/1873828047
20% of sales will be sent to the Disasters Emergency Committee in support of Ukraine.
It doesn’t cost a lot to change our lives. We just have to change our ideas. You can do it. Let us know how you get on. Ask any questions. We will try to help. Good luck.
“This closely argued and carefully paced book offers a radically different conceptualisation of anxiety and associated problems.”
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A couple of methods I have developed in re spiralling and multi anxious thoughts is to either
A. Post a ‘Door Security Guard’ in my mind. When anxious thinking is suspected of being problematic, the doorman asks the thought to behave itself and if it persists, the doorman ejects the thought from the ‘club’
B. I think of negative thinking as a spiral, much like an eddy in a fast moving stream. If one eddy joins another, the eddy becomes one large one. If a third or fourth eddy joins up, the problem is that there is one huge continual downward spiral. i then to stop each eddy before it joins up with another, by using techniques described on this site