Thoughts are not the problem

Your mind and thoughts are not separate from your body. You cannot transcend your body and exist in your thoughts, alone. And your conscious mind is not making all the executive decisions. Your brain-and-body are one integrated neural circuit. And sometimes your body is telling you what to do.

Who you are, and what you feel is deeply embedded in your nervous system. Your brain may do the processing, but what you feel is sensed by the body. Without the body, you would have no sense of self, no substance. This is why you go numb and feel disembodied when you’re anaesthetised. 

The Self exists nowhere else; except your body. Your thoughts may carry memories and the story of your life (in images and words), but your sensations give you the feel of lived experience. Likewise, your sensations, carried by neurotransmitters in the nervous system give you the feeling of stress and pain, not thoughts. Thoughts cannot feel anything and they cannot hurt you; but sensations give you the feeling fear and pain.

For example, if you think of a candle and hold your finger to the imaginary flame, you cannot feel any pain. But if you hold your real finger close to the flame you feel it’s heat, light and pain when it burns. You do not have to imagine – it hurts.

The feeling of anxiety

It is the same with anxiety. The thoughts churning over in your mind, even excessive worrying, cannot hurt you, or make you feel anything. Thoughts are only images and pictures that represent a perceived threat. But sensations are the ‘felt-experience‘ of real pain in the body. They are remembered in the sensory brain as felt sensations. So when a sensory memory of fear is triggered, you really feel it. Your whole body responds to fear as well as sensory reminders of it.

This is why you get triggered for no apparent reason, by a sixth sense that alerts you to a hidden threat, even when you’re unaware of it. Imagine walking into a room with two people inside sitting in silence. The atmosphere is thick with tension. You didn’t witness an argument, but your brain detects the minute signs of aggression: in the rigid postures, the ruffled hair and grinding jaw-muscle, the narrow focus of their eyes and the smell of body odour. All you have as evidence is the hairs on the back of your neck and something about the air in the room, but you’re entirely convinced that the two people were in conflict before you arrived.

Fine-tuning your senses

Anxiety is not irrational, it’s a disproportionate response to a perceived threat. This is why you must fine-tune your awareness to your sensations if you want to change the way you feel. Anxiety releases real stress hormones, in response to unconscious sensory-stimuli. this is what creates an internal sense of urgency. Adrenalin and cortisol are transmitted through your nervous system and trigger feelings of hypervigilance.

Sometimes the threat is not real, but comes from a memory that puts you into anticipation mode. For example, when your partner is quiet in his own thoughts and you demand to know what he’s thinking because you’re anxious, without realising you’ve been triggered by a childhood memory of being punished with the silent-treatment by your parents.

Anxiety is in the body

The distress you feel when your anxious occurs in the body first. So there is no point wasting time thinking, or rationalising away your anxiety. You need to distinguish between the real sensations now and unconscious memories of the past, before you react. Rather than make assumptions based on old patterns of anticipating danger in your nervous system, you need to step back, listen to your instincts and slow down your response.

Once your body is triggered, it needs to be self-regulated so you can discharge stress hormones and restore equilibrium. Often, using diaphragmatic breathing and grounding techniques, to deactivate stress via the vagus nerve will help you do this.

However, there is no point ignoring the body and telling it how to react via your thoughts. It’s too late: the distress you feel will not change just because you have a rational explanation of why you feel, what you feel. That is why telling yourself flying is the safest form of travel, will not relieve you of your fear about flying a tin-can in the sky. Even then, your anxiety is usually at take-off, when you can feel your stomach churning and the weightlessness of flight, not the worrisome thoughts you have in the flight lounge.

How to work with sensations

Whatever sensations, feelings and thoughts you express, they are all a result of neuro-chemical impulses flowing through your nervous system. Even your behaviour is driven by sensation. You must feel something before you’re conscious of being alive.

For example, imagine touching a flame. You cannot feel the flame in your brain first, before you touch it. The flame activates a pain-receptor in your hand, which is processed by the brain. And the pain-signal flows down your nervous system to your motor neurons, which respond by pulling your hand back automatically. Thinking would take too long.

So when your body is overworked, injured or tired, it is stressed. And stress is a neuro-biological process, which drives your behaviour. Anxiety occurs in the body when the nervous system triggers hormones like adrenalin and cortisol that put you on high alert.

Your senses are processed by the brain to respond. Thinking and behaving is always reactive. But your unconscious body senses the flame, long before your conscious mind realises what’s going on. Behavioural responses are triggered further down the line for obvious reasons – you cannot react to something you don’t feel. And you cannot react unless you FEEL motivated to do so.

So-called negative thoughts and emotions

It is easy to imagine that if you’re anxious all you have to do is change your negative thoughts. Easier said than done. If that were the case we would always think about what is good for us and follow the ‘right’ thoughts, when we were feeling anxious. But let’s assess this argument about changing impulsive behaviours and emotions, by adjusting our negative thought patterns.

Take anger, for instance. What are your thoughts about it? 

Most of you will probably agree it is a ‘negative emotion’ – leading to destructive impulses, aggression, violence and a loss of personal control. Anger can definitely cause conflict in relationships, leading to fearful and defensive reactions in unresolved arguments. It can definitely trigger anxiety and fear for both victims and their persecutors. 

Negative patterns of thinking

So, maybe all we have to do is monitor our negative thought patterns and challenge them with more rational thoughts. For example, rather than feel attacked when your partner asks you to stop shouting, you simply stop and realise you’re being unreasonable? Your partner is only expressing her individual needs when she implores you to stop shouting. If you challenge the idea that she is attacking you, you recognise she is only standing up for herself and has a right to do so. Your anger is destructive, so you keep challenging the negative thought patterns and defensive behaviour until they stop. If only it were that simple!

The problem is whenever you speak, your partner rolls her eyes and turns her back on you when trying to resolve an argument. She uses a patronising voice and dismisses your ideas. She walks away from the scene and sweeps your problems under the carpet, until they’re forgotten about. Your partner always shuts down the conversation, before you get to speak. You feel belittled. Nothing ever gets resolved until the next argument.

Now you realise that part of her behaviour is a reaction to your anger, but it’s a preemptive response before the argument even begins. This is her negative pattern of thinking and no amount of challenging your assumptions is going to change your partner’s behaviour. If you try to present a rational argument, she just says you’re trying to win. You need emotional intelligence, to resolve this, not a better rational argument.

Observing your emotions

If you’re more aware of your emotional responses, your posture, your facial expressions and tone of voice; you might realise how to adjust and empathise with her internal state. When you notice her nervousness and realise she’s afraid of opening-up to judgement you might try to identify with her anxiety, by revealing an example of your own vulnerability. You could wait patiently for her to breathe and settle her emotions before you speak. You might choose to remain silent and listen attentively, even when she says very little.

Whatever approach you choose, if you’re interpreting her thoughts without confirmation and calculating the right strategy, you will become detached from your instincts. If you try to resolve a conflict with logical reasoning and convince her that the problem is hers, she will feel judged and angry.

If you demonstrate you have the superior thought process: that you’re more rational than she is and her emotional reactions are ‘irrational’; you win, she loses. But the relationship collapses and you lose trust in each other. From then on, the relationship becomes oppositional – you win, she loses; your benefit, her loss and so on. Tit-for-tat.

If you tune in and empathise with each other’s emotions, you realise you both feel vulnerable. You’ve learned to conform to different beliefs and values about expressing anger: she has one pattern, you have another. If you can communicate this to each other, you have a chance of demonstrating empathy and emotional intelligence. You have to finely tune your sensations and emotions, before you react. You need to listen to each other’s emotional language. Rational thoughts will not reach her and only reinforce the detached, angry feelings of frustration with each other.

Dealing with anger

You have to realise anger is not a negative emotion. It is an emotion. You cannot avoid anger: it is wired into every mammal for good reason. Anger protects you from harm. Anger helps mobilise action and motivate behaviour. It helps you to reach out and remind others to keep their boundaries. If expressed early on, your anger is more reasonable: it lets you stand-up for your values and speak out.

If you express anger without shouting it can be self-affirming. There are many levels and nuances to anger. Not all anger is irrational, aggressive and destructive. And it is not all about control. Your anger lets people know where they stand. If you slow down and listen to yourself, before you lose control you will be able to articulate yourself better.

Lower down the threshold, anger can be constructive and help you change. It can be creative and reinvigorating in relationships. If you’re both aware of your anger, you can express it in a way that is manageable and mature. Anger can even help you to connect with your vulnerability, express it and empathise with each other. Listening to and learning from your anger can help you to distinguish between a real threat (communication breakdown) and a perceived threat (fear of conflict) in relationships.

Real and perceived threat

There is a difference between a real threat (sensory-stimulus) and a perceived threat (fearful thoughts). For example, like the difference between a near-miss in a car accident (a real sensory experience) and believing your boss is going to fire you if you’re late to work (an imagined experience). But when you’re anxious, you still stimulate stress hormones in your body, as if the threat were actually happening now. This is because sensory memories stored in your hippocampus stimulate the stress response in your sympathetic nervous system.

It’s no good thinking about why you’re stressed, or worrying what you’re going to do, or thinking through all the solutions. Stress is in your body. It is a neuro-chemical event: cortisol is already there making you feel bad. 

Nothing is magically going to make anxiety disappear, whatever insight you have about why it’s happening. Even if you know the threat isn’t real, your thoughts cannot help you regulate feelings of panic. For example, when you have a disturbing nightmare, you know it’s not true when you wake, but you can’t help feeling the lingering sense of dread. No amount of rationality reduces your distress in that moment. You need to relax your body and recover – regulating your breathing and heart-rate via the vagus nerve, until your anxiety is fully discharged.