Is there something you avoid because it makes you feel uncomfortable or fearful? Do others get frustrated with you when you can’t get yourself to do something you know is safe in your mind, but your body is petrified? Have you ever been frustrated by your inability to get your mind to listen to you when you give it instructions?
Between our ears we have a “supercomputer” with unlimited potential. Your brain has a set of rules that enable it to operate efficiently. When not used as per its instructions, it won’t produce the desired results.
A computer can have a hardware problem, a software problem, or it can be used incorrectly, like trying to move the cursor with the keyboard or trying to type with the mouse. Similarly, the brain can present with a hardware problem, which generally requires medication to manage, a software problem, where all you need to do is remove the bad thought pattern and replace it with good thought patterns, or we can simply be using it the wrong way and once that is corrected, the problem is resolved.
Here are some statistics: 100% of people will experience anxiety, but only 18% will develop anxiety disorders. 100% of people experience despair, sadness, and loss, but only 9.5% will suffer depression. 60-80% will experience significant trauma, but only 6-8% will develop PTSD. 12-35% of people will experience panic attacks, but only 2.7% will develop panic disorders. 100% of people experience fear, but only 6-8% develop phobias. Why?
The answer to this question holds the key to emotional freedom:
An emotion evolves to a disorder when we change a behavior to accommodate it.
Allow me to clarify. All emotions that we experience in our lives are like descending escalators; their intensity diminishes consistently. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert conducted an amazing study about happiness, and found that an individual who has become paraplegic and someone who won a large lottery jackpot are equally happy one year after their experience. This is the same reason why a new car, job, or house becomes less exciting with time. The same is true for negative emotions related to experiences such as losing a loved one, a painful diagnosis, or illness.
Fear, panic, anxiety, trauma, or sadness will diminish naturally, much like the discomfort of a mosquito bite. Initially, your brain sends the message “it itches!” When you respond to that message by scratching, your behavior reinforces the signals being sent by your brain. However, if you ignore the urge to scratch, you become desensitized to the stimulus and your brain stops sending the message to scratch.
When you choose to ignore your brain’s nagging, it stops complaining. If you listen to the brain’s complaints and consequently avoid an uncomfortable situation, it will continue to send messages about the discomfort and the negative emotion will increase instead of naturally decreasing.
So, if you ever got used to an article of clothing that was initially uncomfortable, or went to school after the initial first-day jitters, you have the skill of allowing your discomfort to naturally fade away. This can be applied to any emotion you choose to diminish in your life. All you need to do is resist the urge to use avoidance and/or safety behaviors, and rather take a leap of faith and allow the emotion to naturally de-escalate.
Once you already have ingrained patterns of avoiding the fear or discomfort, accomplishing this task requires more effort, but it can be done. You brain is operating perfectly normally; you are just sending the wrong instructions and asking it to keep the negative emotion alive with your accommodating behavior(s). All that is required is to replace the “program” running in your brain (the negative thought pattern) with the program that will allow the “default setting” to run (allowing the negative emotion to diminish naturally).
The only thing we have any power to control or affect is the present moment. Negative emotions such as fear cause us to live in the future; feelings such as guilt have us living in the past. Living in the past or the future prevents us from experiencing simchah and menuchas hanefesh in our lives. To avoid this pitfall we must learn how to stay in the present moment – even if the experience is uncomfortable. The moment will pass, as will the intensity of the emotion. Living in the moment, without trying to avoid or protect ourselves from the present, allows us to control our focus, stay on track, and keep moving in the direction we want to move in.
The next step is determining where we want to go. Imagine getting into a taxi and when the driver asks “Where are you headed?” you answer, “Not here!” You will find yourself driving for hours without arriving at your destination, simply because you never gave the driver an address.
Ask yourself, if I got up tomorrow morning and my anxiety was gone, how would my life look? Clarify for yourself what it is that you want. Come up with ten ways your life would be better if your anxiety disappeared. The more specific your imagery is, the more effective this technique will be. For example, if you would like to be able to enjoy the process of getting ready for the day, you need to see in your mind’s eye a clear image of getting up tomorrow morning and feeling great. How does it feel? How does your face look? How are others responding? The more detailed your mental imagery is and the more senses you can incorporate, the quicker you will see the results and relief you are looking for. Do this exercise daily; spend about one minute on each image. In just ten minutes a day, you will be giving your brain a clear message of where you want to go and the rest of your daily thoughts will follow.
Fortunately, the prognosis for anxiety, fear, panic, phobias, and stress is great. You can transform limitation to liberation very quickly and broaden your possibilities and opportunities. The brain can adapt to change very quickly. A person can develop a trauma in seconds, so why not use the same power to create positive change quickly as well?
There are two important pointers that will help you succeed in this endeavor. The first point is that just like all life-enhancing behaviors such as exercise, vitamins, and dietary changes require regularity to derive benefit, so too, new positive skills need to be practiced regularly. Secondly, these techniques work – if properly applied – so if you are not achieving substantial improvements in three months, do yourself a favor and see a mental health professional. Get help at applying these skills, rather than just allowing yourself to get frustrated and settle for a limited experience of the life you deserve.
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Dr. Hillel Becker
PhD, Chief Psychologist at James J Peters Medical Center, Bronx, NY
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MD, West End Medical Associates, Manhattan, NY
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A multidisciplinary team of world Renown mental health providers.
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