I’d like to suggest a technique for dealing with anxiety and stress. This technique involves distinguishing between two types of thought.
To give a bit of background… from my own past experience, and those of clients and others, I have noticed that it’s quite common, at times of acute anxiety and stress, to have thoughts going round and round the mind. A person can often feel a victim of those thoughts, as though they hang around whatever the person does. The kinds of experiences reported might be summed up in these types of phrase:
‘ I wake up, and my mind starts whirring almost immediately. Then my body gets anxious, and I can’t stop the circle of thoughts.’
‘I try to relax, but I can’t stop thinking about my problems. They just pop up in my head, and then won’t go away.’
As anyone will know who has been through this, it’s exhausting. There are no easy answers, and everyone has to find the right combination of emotional, physical, moral and medical help that works for them.
But here’s one idea that may help.
HOOKS AND MAGNETS
Imagine that your thoughts are divided up into hooks and magnets. Mechanically, hooks and magnets work in different ways. In particular:
If you are attached to a hook, and try to move away from it too quickly, you can do yourself some serious damage. At worst, you could even strangle yourself fighting to get away from it. At best, you may tear your clothing. You may need to move closer to it, temporarily, until you understand how it works, and can unhitch yourself.
If you are attracted to a magnet, then you are a little more free to move away from it, though it may take time and effort.
APPLICATION TO YOUR DISTRESS
The reason this may help, is because some issues you can solve simply by moving away from them (the magnets)… but you may have noticed that some issues don’t work like that. The relationship is more subtle, and actually, if you try to yank yourself away, then you may find yourself caught even more firmly, and hurting all the more.
By learning to distinguish between the two types, you may get more effective at choosing mind-tactics to suit the issue.
HOW TO IDENTIFY MAGNETS
You’ll have to work some of this out yourself, but here are some ideas. Magnet-style issues are ones where, roughly speaking, if you are away from the source of the problem, then the problem really does seem to fade, and you are free again. The relationship, if you like, is approximately linear and proportional. Escaping these issues is like being a rocket escaping a planet’s gravity to go travelling through space.
Examples will differ from person to person, but I’ll try to offer some thought-situations that are ‘magnet’ style:
Unhealthy environments. You wouldn’t sit in poison in order to improve your skin. In the same way, if you are directly in an environment which you recognise as damaging, then an effort to get away sounds good.
Overactivity and exhaustion. You wouldn’t keep driving your car if it was empty of oil. In the same way, if you are exhausted, and racking yourself to pieces, then to move away from activity is usually sensible.
HOW TO IDENTIFY HOOKS
Hook-style issues are, roughly speaking, ones where it is wise to remain, at least temporarily, in a relationship with the source of your problem. Just like being caught on a hook, you may even have to move closer to it before you move away, to give yourself room to move, and disentangle everything. Escaping these issues is like being an animal caught in a snare.
Examples, again, will differ, but here are some suggestions:
Problems requiring attention. You wouldn’t solve the hoarder’s problem of an untidy house by leaving the house unattended. In the same way, if you have been leaving a relationship unattended (perhaps with yourself), then an effort to tend it carefully, and understand it, seems sensible.
Problems created by manipulative behaviour. Horrid as it sounds, some people are experts at wrapping others into their lives by holding people hostage. Just as a hostage negotiator doesn’t walk away, so you may have to watch and act carefully until the situation is disentangled.
HOW TO APPLY THE TECHNIQUE
These ideas may not solve your worries, or your anxiety, very quickly. Much anxiety is physiological, and, epecially when linked to trauma or biological predisposition, is less easily reduced, at least in the short term, by practical wisdom.
However, my guess is that it’s better to try to be wise in dealing with your own thoughts, than to remain in a kind of fear and shock. It also may enable you to begin to deal with things one at a time, which is more in tune with how your are built as an animal.
My suggestion is to consider each worry in turn. While you are examining one, don’t try to examine the others. Focus on one thing at a time. If necessary, engage a friend to talk about that one thing – it takes the pressure off. And talking is a good way of reducing a parallel stream of frenzy, to a calm discussion of one thing at a time. This is because language is built that way. If you notice, most books, and conversations, deal with one thing at a time; otherwise they’re hard to understand.
In considering each worry, try to judge whether it is a magnet (a situation that you can remove yourself from with a bit of effort); or a hook (a situation needing your attention, and a bit of disentangling).
Then, whether each thought-situation is a magnet or a hook, diarise when you will next attend to it. Again, one thing at a time.
Choose one thing that you worry about the most.
Talk about it with a friend if possible, or maybe write it down on paper.
Once you have done this, decide whether it is a magnet, or a hook.
If it is a magnet, then simply moving away from it can get you started.
If it is a hook, then a period of moving closer to it, so you can understand its mechanism, is wise.
Either way, schedule in your diary when you will next deal with, and think about, the problem.
In between times, if you are lucky, you may find it easier to reduce your worry by knowing that attending to it is diarised.
A FINAL NOTE
This isn’t a cure-all. It is a discussion designed to offer help in situations where you feel flooded with worries. It really just offers a discipline, where you can kind of ‘meditate’ on your issues with wisdom, understanding and learning from them one at a time. It reduces the frustration of repeated problems, as:
You may find that you have been trying to treat a hook as a magnet, and are constantly hurting yourself by trying to run away from something that you could attend to better. (Maybe you want to avoid the drama?)
You may find that you have been trying to treat a magnet as a hook, and are constantly hurting yourself by trying to negotiate carefully something it is better to move away from. (Maybe you are attracted to the drama?)
I am encouraging first acceptance, and then wise, calm problem-solving.
When you are anxious, your thoughts can end up going round and round your mind.
Some thoughts will be about magnets, problems that can best be solved by moving away from them. Examples include unhealthy environments, and your own overactivity. Here, moving away, and resting, may be the best thing.
Some thoughts will be about hooks, problems that can be best solved by moving temporarily closer to them, and understanding them. Examples include situations you have been avoiding, and situations where someone or something is effectively holding you hostage. Here, careful thought and discussion with a trusted person may be the best thing.
In each case, diarising when you will attend to each thing is good. It takes the burden off you now, by knowing that there is an allocated time to attend to each issue.
It’s not easy, but it’s wise.