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In a previous article I explained that every time you have a health problem you should be asking yourself: “What stress is causing this, how did my thinking play a role in creating this stress and what is the correct perspective that will shift my stress response?”
In this article I’ll explore these concepts more extensively and share some great techniques to help conquer fear, worry and anxiety.
To me, it seems that faith is trusting in the good, while fear is putting your trust in the bad. Yet we all seem to worry excessively. Worrying seems to be a natural reaction to life’s challenges.
I bet you’ll agree that when something goes wrong, it somehow later turns out to be for your own good. (Though, often, the wait for the final benefit can be difficult.)
If you think about it, you can actually be thankful for the contrast during life’s stressful events. The contrast helps us expand our knowledge and character. And even though it is indeed difficult to maintain a calm perspective when you are in the thick of stress, you can do it if you practice.
Here are examples of stressful circumstances you can probably relate to:
- The stress of being late: You find you are late to an important event (meeting, concert, flight, etc.). This causes your mind to jump to the probable undesired consequences. Running late will cost you money, you will greatly disappoint someone, you’ll miss your flight, your tardiness will create even other bigger problems, etc. As these thoughts race through your head, you feel the effects of this line of thinking as a wave of fear-stress in your body. As much as you try to tell yourself all will be fine, your body seems to take charge and you find yourself sweating, getting an upset stomach or developing neck tension, etc.
- Financial stress: We too often focus on the money we don’t have rather than be thankful for the money we do have. The stress is created with fearful thoughts about the future. It can literally make you sick, even though things usually turn out OK in the end and not as painful as you imagined. You never go hungry, right?
- Relationship stress: This is definitely a common source of stress. When you get your feelings hurt by the words or actions of others, you immediately feel the stress in your physical body. When you can calm this ill feeling enough to think clearly, you then have the conscious choice to turn it into a learning opportunity (if you are teachable), to forgive and to love again. If you continue to embrace negative thinking about the event long enough, you’ll either create your own sickness from these thoughts or leave the relationship altogether.
There are similar worrisome scenarios in everyone’s life, often occurring multiple times a day for some of us. Your reaction to life’s stressful circumstances will be even worse if you give in to common cognitive distortions.
Common Cognitive Distortions
Don’t let these distorted ways of thinking creep into your interpretation of life’s stressful circumstances:
- All-or-nothing thinking: “If I am less than perfect, I must be a total failure.”
- Overgeneralization: “I didn’t get hired. I’ll never get hired anywhere.”
- Focusing on one or two negatives while ignoring the many positives, or diminishing the positive: “I did well on the presentation, but it was only luck.”
- Jumping to conclusions: “She did not smile at me; therefore, she hates me.”
- Catastrophizing: “The snow is coming. I will probably get frostbite and lose my fingers.”
- Emotional reasoning: “I become angry easily. That must mean I will never be happy in a relationship.”
- Labeling: “I’m a failure; I am stupid; I’m a loser.”
- Personalization: “It’s my fault my son became fat. I should have never let sugary foods into our house.”
Curtail Fear With These Tools
The fact is you really do have the power over fear, worries, stress and the anxiety that that results in your physical body. How is this done? Begin with using simple mental tools to curtail fear.
- Challenge the cognitive distortion or the worrisome thought: Ask the question: “What is the evidence that this is true?”
- Step into the healer’s role: Answer this question honestly: “How would you advise a friend who was having this same worry?” Notice that when you step out of the victim role, you can clearly see that this shall pass as it always does.
- Play the “What are the possibilities?” game: In this game you begin to list all the good possibilities. After a number of positive possibilities have been presented (this can be verbally to yourself, but it is much more effective with a friend), you’ll find that you are focusing on the positive possibilities rather than the worrisome ones. Make it even more effective by taking a slow, deep, calming breath after each positive possibility. You’ll discover that worrying didn’t change the outcome anyway, but worrying sure makes you feel bad.
- Create a specific “worry time” for yourself: You can convince yourself to save the worry for the designated time, and stick to this time. For example, pick 5 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Then, when worry comes up, just know that you’ll deal with it during that time.
- Determine if the feared event is solvable or not: Research shows that you feel less anxious (with fewer physical symptoms) while you worry because it helps you feel you are solving the problem. If the thing you fear is even solvable or removable, then accept it as part of your life and trust that there is a purpose for it. Most likely it will become a blessing in disguise, eventually.
- Accept uncertainty: Ask yourself: “Is it even possible to be completely certain about everything in life?” Since this never happens for anyone, ask: “Can I accept that some things in life are meant to be discovered through a process… and can I trust this process?”
- Carry out feared scenarios to their completion until there is nothing left to fear: For example, ask yourself: “If I miss the plane, then what could happen?” (Explore the likely consequences such as having to catch the next plane or miss the trip entirely.) Then consider a question like: “If I miss the trip entirely, then what could happen?” Continue these logical steps until you reach the worst possible outcome, such as complete failure in your job, relationship, etc. Finally, confront the question: “Once all this happens, what do I do next?” (Talk yourself through the worst possible outcome so that you do not fear it anymore.)
These mental exercises can work well for calming fearful thoughts and worries. In some cases, though, they may not be powerful enough once you are really feeling intense anxiety in your body. In my next article I’ll discuss more valuable tools to overcome anxiety and anxiety disorders.
To feeling good for health,
Michael Cutler, M.D.
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