Our not so realistic reality

Not so real reality

Not so real reality

The basis of any anxiety or panic problem is a personal belief about something that in reality is not true. Whatever your individual fear may be, the chances are that it is completely illogical and not at all rooted in real facts. Living a life based entirely on thoughts and feelings which we know don’t reflect reality is one of the strangest experiences a person can have, and yet so many of us live this way every day, sometimes without even realizing they’re wrong.

Myself, I could say with total conviction that I know my anxious thoughts are incorrect. My logical brain is well aware that a panic attack will do me no harm; I’ve had more than enough to factually confirm that. However, there is still that thought, a voice so to speak, which convinces me to avoid any situation that could cause a panic attack because there is always a “what if?”. This makes my anxiety very difficult to explain to others, and I know I’m not alone. People will say “there’s nothing to worry about, you’ll be fine” and you can’t help but answer “I know I will”. They ask why you’re so scared if you know you’re going to be safe, and unfortunately you’re left with no real answer. It is simply a feeling which guides you through your day, and although this may only make up 1% of your thoughts, that 1% is stronger than all of your logical thoughts combined.

It seems mad, on paper, to allow something you know is wrong to dictate everything you do. From what you eat, to where you go, to who you go there with, this one small sensation, which tells you that maybe this time will be so much worse than all the others, is in control of your life. It doesn’t take long to collect a full repertoire of symptoms and side effects of anxiety, from heart palpitations to nausea and full panic attacks. You become familiar with each one, you’ve experienced them all at their very worst and still survived to tell the tales, but still you continue to avoid and fear situations which may cause them again, all because of one tiny voice.

Imagine a world where this voice, this feeling, is the minority. Where you consider that maybe there is a risk, a small “what if?”, but you don’t allow it to control you because you truly do believe that those anxious thoughts are nothing but lies. Simply knowing that your paranoid brain is wrong is just step one, and while it’s an excellent step, it doesn’t change the fact that there is still a part of you which refuses to commit to the belief entirely. There is so much more freedom and liberation which comes with fully accepting and internalising the idea that these thoughts you have are only there to hold you back, and in no way reflect what life is really like. You first have to realise that you’ve seen it all before, you have the wisdom and benefit that comes with experience. You have been through the worst of it and you are still standing, and that should suggest that maybe, just maybe, some part of your way of thinking is very, very wrong.

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To see ourselves as others see us

I don’t know about you but there have been times in my life when I have been acutely sensitive to the gaze of others. I am not immune even now, although I am better at managing how it makes me feel.
Which is why I found this video interesting and I thought you might also. It shows how different our own impression of ourselves can be to that of others.
It is like having a window into the subtle ways we see ourselves (not the good ways) and how that can distort everything else we feel.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking part 5

Conclusion Jumping

This is the final article in our attacking anxiety and depression: correcting faulty thinking series which has so far looked at how the brain works and thinking develops, how and why your brain makes errors and the consequences of faulty thinking, and how the depressed brain makes more errors than normal.

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Any time you draw a conclusion, make a decision, statement, judgment or interpretation that is ‘black or white’, ‘all or nothing’ or that is ‘overly negative’, even ‘catastrophic’ and thereby leads to you feeling down, can be labelled as Conclusion Jumping.

This can be likened to looking down a telescope or tube at something. When you do this you only ever see a fraction of what could be seen. Conclusion Jumping limits your available options because it prevents you from perceiving everything that is really out there.

Examples of Conclusion Jumping are:

  • If I am not the best, I am a failure.
  • I have to do everything to the best of my ability, or there is no point   in even trying.
  • People never change
  • Life is ruined
  • Men/Women are all the same
  • If I cannot change by tomorrow there is no point in trying
  • Really creative people do not need to try very hard
  • If I do not get this job, that is it, I will never work again
  • Nothing can help me
  • I might have died, next time I will
  • You are my friend or you are my enemy

Attacking anxiety and depression: Talking Down

When you think or speak of yourself or other people in a negative way, when you use should or must as absolute instructions or when you use emotions as a guide to reality, then that is ‘Talking Down’.

Using language in any way that detracts from your worth or the worth of someone else is an example of ‘Talking Down’. Talking Down is very damaging to your well being.

Once Talking Down starts it rapidly establishes itself as an automatic habit pattern that pervades every aspect of your mental activity.

Examples of ‘Talking Down’ are:

  • I should be a better father
  • I should be well by now
  • I am ugly
  • I am not worth anything
  • People like that are useless
  • I do not matter
  • I am failing as a mother
  • I should not let it all get to me as much as it does

Attacking anxiety and depression: Why it is worth challenging faulty thinking

In general the fact that the brain uses short cuts to reduce energy and processing time is not the problem, most of the time your brain gets it more or less right.

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Nevertheless, errors do happen and it is when you do not recognise or challenge the errors that they quickly become automatic. This is when short cut errors lead to faulty thinking. Faulty thinking is a major factor in the development and maintenance of all psychological problems and especially in depression.

If you put effort into recognising and challenging faulty thinking you gain a valuable tool for taking control over your low mood. For this to happen it is necessary to turn automatic processes once again into conscious processes. This requires practise and constant attention on what you think, say and do, coupled with a willingness to recognise that some brain processes will need to be re-trained to ensure your well being.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking part 4

The depressed brain makes more errors

The attacking anxiety and depression: correcting faulty thinking series has so far looked at how the brain works and thinking develops, how and why your brain makes errors and the consequences of faulty thinking. In part four we’re going to look at how the depressed brain makes more errors than normal.

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Much of our understanding of Active Self Help for depression and anxiety  is derived from research showing that people who suffer from depression make many more shortcut errors.

This research has shown that when mood is low the brain recognises negative sounding words such as (gloom, sad, pain) faster than positive words such as (happy, glad, smile). This demonstrable fact has been shown time and time again.

This illustrates that the brain of a depressed person has learned to accept depressing information into the system more readily than positive information. This is one of the damaging things that acts to keep your mood low.

The most damaging aspect of shortcut errors is that when you generate your own negative thoughts about yourself, they are not usually recognised as short cut errors and are processed faster than other kinds of thoughts.

The sheer repetition of your negative thoughts about yourself has turned them into Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). They were originally created as shortcut errors but now are out of your conscious control. They are automatic and because of this are deadly.

Attacking anxiety and depression:  The summary so far

  • Your brain constantly works to understand the world
  • Your senses take in information from the surrounding world and pass that information to your brain
  • Your brain interprets this information in habitual ways (short cuts), saving time and energy
  • Brain short cuts that go wrong can lead to the wrong understanding or interpretation of events
  • Negative thoughts are always a consequence of faulty thinking
  • Shortcut errors quickly become automatic

Attacking anxiety and depression:   How you can recognize shortcut errors

Here are some pointers you can learn that always indicate brain shortcut errors have happened. Shortcut errors always:

  • Lead to inaccurate negative thoughts
  • Distort reality
  • Lead to you to feeling negative about yourself
  • Lead to self destructive thinking

If you ever experience any of these kinds of problems, you can be quite sure that a short cut error has triggered faulty thinking. If a program on your home computer were working badly you would take one of a number of steps to rectify the problem. You must now start to rectify the shortcut errors that are causing your brain to constantly lead you into faulty thinking.

There are three classes of faulty thinking that we would like you to become aware of. We have labeled these as Mind reading, Conclusion Jumping and Talking Down. Here are some examples. We will also give you a training task to give you practice recognising these faulty thinking errors.

Attacking anxiety and depression:  Mindreading

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Mindreading is very damaging because it leads you to assume you know something that you could not possibly know. It leads you act as if you have a mind reader’s crystal ball; to believe you can see into the mind and know the intentions of another person without any words at all being spoken. Below are examples of Mindreading:

  • He/she thinks I am a failure;
  • Everyone can see how stressed I am;
  • If I talk to him/her they will see right through me;
  • They know I am a fraud;
  • People can see I am useless;
  • If I attempt it everyone will see how nervous I am;
  • I am an open book.

You know Mindreading is happening if: you believe you know something you could not possibly know.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking part 3

The consequences of faulty thinking

So far in the attacking anxiety and depression: correcting faulty thinking series we’ve looked at how the brain works and thinking develops and how and why your brain makes errors. In part three I’d like to focus on the consequences of faulty thinking – how this affects you.

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Attacking anxiety and depression:  What are the consequences of faulty thinking?

When the short cuts your brain makes go wrong, you are left with the wrong interpretation or understanding of something. Imagine the experience of seeing someone from behind, being convinced it is someone you know.

You tap them on the shoulder and it turns out to be a stranger. That is an example of a short cut error that could be called faulty thinking. In this example you jumped to a conclusion without enough information to be fully sure you knew the person. If this has happened to you there is not likely any harm done, it was a mistake.

Sadly, many human error disasters and accidents can be wholly attributed to short cut errors. The human brain often misjudges the distances between things, miscalculates the speed of something, hears what it expects to hear and interprets something in an habitual way.

In fact it jumps to conclusions,  it sees what it expects to see, it hears what it expects to hear and is imagines things that have not happened. All of these are based on scanty information and the application of rules that are no longer valid.

Sometimes faulty thinking can have catastrophic effects. And the same principles that underlie the faulty thinking in disaster or accident situations also happen in everyday life and can lead to very serious problems;  leaving you dealing with depression and anxiety.

Attacking anxiety and depression:  How faulty thinking creates psychological problems

You are equipped with the ability to be self-critical. Depending upon your life experiences up to this point, your ability to be self critical will be more or less developed. For many people it will be highly developed. But be under no illusion, everyone is critical about themselves to some degree.

If you experience times in your life when you are overloaded, stressed, burdened, confused, tired, unsure or unstable, then your self critical capacity is increased. At the same time your brain is probably working hard to manage the problems you perceive in your life. This is when short cut errors become highly dangerous.

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When your brain makes a shortcut error and the outcome is negative, self destructive, depressing or fear inducing, you may not recognize it as a short cut error. You may accept it as a fact. This increases unpleasant negative emotions and depresses your mood further. Remember: if an error has happened once it is more likely to happen again. The next time your brain makes a short cut error you again accept it as fact. And so this continues until the shortcut error is automatic. You no longer question it.

The process can repeat itself many times with many forms of shortcut error. Your job now is to recognize short cut errors and bring them once again under conscious control; because only by bringing them under conscious control can you rectify them.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: Correcting faulty thinking part 2

Brain Processing Errors

In part one of attacking anxiety and depression: correcting faulty thinking I talked to you a little about how your brain works so that you could understand how thinking develops. In part two I’d like to tell about how and why your brain makes errors and what that means for your mental health.

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Attacking anxiety and depression: How your brain works

Firstly, I should point out that your brain works very well indeed. However, in any system that has to manage the vast amounts of data your brain does, there will always be the possibility of error. The study of brain processing errors is a whole field of research that helps us better understand how the brain works. Many common errors seem to be the result of the brain using an inappropriate short cut. Which means the brain applies a strategy or rules it has used before thereby not having to fully process something. This leads to what we have called shortcut errors.

Attacking anxiety and depression: Brain short cut errors

The real problem with these errors is not so much that errors exist, but that you do not recognise them as errors.
Remember the effect of learning and repetition which we talked about in part one? Well, if an error occurs and it is not recognised it becomes easier to make the same error again; and after 50 errors it is automatic.

Sometimes this really does not matter very much. Suppose you acquired the habit of never eating green vegetables as a child because you mistakenly believed they were poisonous. It is now automatic. You never eat them. It is probably not going to hurt you much.

But suppose you acquired the habit of thinking of yourself as stupid. If you have thought it 50 times or more it is likely to be automatic. Lack of green vegetables will not stop you from achieving your life goals; thinking of yourself as stupid probably will. Both are examples of shortcut errors we have called faulty thinking.

Attacking anxiety and depression: The Muller Lyer Illusion

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Look at this picture. It is called a Muller Lyer illusion. Can you decide which of the horizontal lines is the longer, the one on the left or the one on the right?

This illusion is one of many tools that is used to study brain shortcut errors. Actually the horizontal lines are both the same length. But the way the diagonal lines are arranged fools your brain into thinking that the line on the right is shorter and the line on the left is longer. Feel free to measure them with a ruler is you feel the need.

The fact that your brain can make short cut errors may seem strange to you; if so, you can now see why you may have never corrected the errors. The fact is you would not recognise any thought or belief as an error unless you were shown how to see it in the first place. This is what we will do in part three.

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