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Don't Believe Everything You Think!  Question Your Thoughts

by Suzie Wolfer LCSW

 Behind the Scenes with the Therapist.
Help for text anxiety
by Suzie Wolfer LCSW

Test anxiety begins when the nervous system goes into an immobilized state after overwhelming stress or trauma.  Tests trigger the original state that set this pattern up to begin with.  It doesn’t matter what created the stress was, we respond to the test that terrible feeling of anxiety and confusion. It’s like driving with the gas pedal floored and the brakes on.  It’s hard to enjoy the scenery.  And it wastes a lot of energy.

Because our brains scan, recall and act on unpleasant experiences, the negativity bias of your brain on test day
, registers a terrible threat to our safety.  Although the client beat himself up for having such a strong reaction, the anxiety made him feel like he had a gun to his head.  The sympathetic nervous system in fight or flight mode blocked clarity and his ability to answer multiple choice questions flew out the window.

To counteract this pattern, I invited him to chat about his passion for his work.  This set up a strong field of soothing energy and engages the parasympathetic nervous system.  And more importantly it starts an “oscillation” of “I can” energy.  Like a cat swishing its tail getting ready to jump, this grounding in pleasure builds momentum to get past the negativity bias of the brain.  Once this natural urge to search for “what’s wrong” softens, the body’s organic intelligence starts to work.

Next we anchored his feelings of confidence by noticing the associated physical sensations, which anchors them in the neurological wiring in the body rather than the shifting sands of the analyzing neocortex.

Thus prepared with a calm nervous system, a sense of confidence anchored in the body, we started to explore the test anxiety problem by going directly to body sensations.  What purpose does this serve?  Anxiety and trauma are stored in the body. Having an explanation or insight about anxiety does not change the pattern.  The body’s language, sensation, holds the key to fully releasing these old patterns.

As the client tracked his body sensations, his organic intelligence started to dislodge the stuck pattern as we can see as new physical sensations rise. 

Many people notice that when they simply track body sensation, the feelings slightly intensify, reach a threshold and then gradually discharge.  You may have noticed this with the impulse to sneeze.  The more you watch it, the sensation fades away on its own without the sneeze. 

Cravings work the same way, observing them until they pass frees us from the unwanted consequences of just following the impulse.

Next I invited the client to savor the experience of being free of the anxiety.  This important step helps your nervous system recover the ability to enjoy life.  The longer you hold pleasurable sensations in conscious awareness, the smarter your brain gets at experiencing ease.  Neurons that fire together, wire together and you create a larger more natural pathway to pleasure.  For the same reason, distracting yourself from worry or depression, keeps you from deepening the anxiety or depression highway in your brain.

Because our brains naturally seek “what’s wrong” rather than “what’s right” it takes conscious intention to override the negativity bias.  The more positive emotion experienced the client experienced with his release of the anxiety, the greater the “deposit” in your well-being bank account.  You feel better naturally more of the time.

The more the client paid attention to the calmness and ease in his body, the more his parasympathetic nervous system switched on.  With the natural resources of the parasympathetic nervous system, he felt more resilient and his body efficiently discharged the text anxiety.  The feeling of being immobilized dissolved naturally.

We finished his session by having him look around, a very important step, to bring the whole system back to the here and now. By taking in his immediate environment, he balanced his inward and outward awareness. 

Many people notice things look different, more color, sharper focus, more detail, things seem closer, when the parasympathetic nervous system runs the optic nerve.  This looking around works like saving an important document on the hard drive so it’s easily accessible.

And then well-being arises naturally as it was designed to do.

Thought Spotting

Randall"My brain is deeply flawed. 

And no offense, but so is yours."

I loved this quote from the Guinea Pig Diaries by AJ Jacobs, so much that it inspired this article.

I spend a bit of time watching my brain at work these days. I used to believe what my brain told me. But I've come to notice my neocortex (the wrinkly outer layer of the brain) jumps right over rationality and "what is," to forecast danger, predict disaster, and intensify worry. . . all in the name of keeping me safe. Thank you very much neocortex, but my everyday life doesn't need your dark cloud!

Our brains developed like a patch work quilt over millions of years to solve problems such as outsmarting the local predator or out-maneuvering the clan next door who wants to take over my cave. Our brains evolved to solve Paleolithic problems, not the stresses of modern life.  I don't know anyone who's run into a grizzly bear or a mountain lion in a very long time.

Double Binds, Fight or Flight and Black & White Thinking

When I have a tight deadline, my neocortex helpfully calculates the chance of completing the task on time. Unfortunately it also calculates the number of people I'll let down if I don't make the deadline as well as the smaller number of people who will be hurt or disappointed if I make the deadline but push them to the sidelines with my race to the finish line.

With the likelihood of failing in at least one side of this double bind, my neocortex orders up a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol to kick start the sympathetic nervous system's fight or flight plan, so I can multitask my way to the finish line. Unfortunately adrenaline causes the brain to see reality as black and white, people as enemy or friends, them or us. Complex tasks become dilemmas.

A Client with Test Anxiety Getting off the Worry Train

Here's an example of a client troubled by test anxiety. His keen intellect served him well. As one of those Mensa types he could out think most of us, except when he had to take a test. To qualify for a new position he needed to take a series of proficiency exams. After studying, he aced every practice tests. However, when observed by the proctor at the other end of the webcam, he'd freeze. After failing the exam for the third time, he came in for help with his test anxiety.

His brain stepped aboard on the "worry train" which took him right out of town to Anxietyville until he learned to observe body sensations.

 Experiencing Healthy Pleasure

In our first session, we chatted about what he loved about being an engineer. I asked him to describe body sensations like the confidence and passion he experienced at work. Being a question he'd never considered before, it took him a few minutes to name and describe what he was feeling. He caught on fast. We chatted for about 10 minutes about his pleasure in his work. When I saw his body and mind were settled and enjoying the experience, we moved to the problem that brought him to see me, the test anxiety.

Next I asked what happens in his body when he's sitting in front of his computer, with the proctor watching him. "My stomach gets this terrible knot. My chest feels like a tight band keeps it from moving and my hands feel cold and numb." His mind naturally wanted to analyze these body sensations to explain the rather than simply observe them.

Observing Without Analyzing, Employing Curiosity

When he settled back into curiosity rather than analysis, he continued tracking body sensations. He noticed something different start to happen. After tracking quietly for a few minutes, he reported that "my right shoulder is tingling. My head is getting very hot. My stomach is feeling cooler. My eyes feel tears. This is crazy."

With a little encouragement, he continued to observe rather than analyze. After a few more minutes he looked up with a bit of a puzzled expression and said "I don't feel anything.  The uncomfortable feelings are gone."  His body processed the anxiety and let it dissolved naturally.

I invited him to take in his surroundings and he notice how things looked. He was surprised that things looked sharper, clearer and he noticed more of the decorations in the office. Next I invited him to savor the feeling of ease and peacefulness in his body, and describe the body sensations he noticed.

Your Body's Organic Intelligence

He experienced the body's organic intelligence. This same body IQ wild animals use to discharge the stress of being hunted. Their built in wisdom can keep them from being a predator's next meal by naturally discharging stress and trauma, as the client had just done.   Animals do this naturally, unlike our human brains which easily catapult us into the past or the future, rather than living in the present.

Tracking Body Sensations

 After a couple more sessions to prepare for his next exam he felt ready to take the test. When he sat facing the screen for the 4th  time, the tension and anxiety came up, but he observed body sensations rather than freezing up. As he tracked, the tightness and fear sensations crested like a roller coaster and released their hold on him. He passed his exam.

Behind the scenes with the Therapist. To learn more about how Somatic Experiencing® works and get a glimpse into what is happening on as the process happens

Negativity Bias of the Brain

Our brains are hard wired to look for danger, threat and risk without any effort on our part. For example, think back over the last year, and remember a compliment someone gave you. Then remember an insult or cutting remark. Which came to you effortlessly?  Many people have no trouble with the insult.

And if you struggle with anxiety or depression, you probably have an active Inner Critic which blithely tells you everything that's wrong with you, such as: "you don't look right," "eat right, sleep right, think right, dress right," "no one likes you," or \your prospects for the future are bad. . . ." 

Don't believe everything you think.

Most of us wouldn't treat our worst enemy the way our brains boss us around! Most people believe their thoughts are real and that self-criticism will somehow motivate them to be better people. It would be great if this strategy works. But it makes most of us tense and unhappy. Problem solving rather than self-criticism gives better results!

 Don't believe everything you think.

 Dr. John Gottman, has researched relationships in his marriage lab for 25 years.  He discovered that couples in happy long term relationships treat each other gently with the "slow start up" because they manage the fight or flight responses. Dr. Gottman noted that it takes seven positive comments or behaviors to outweigh one negative comment. It's just more energy efficient to be kind to our mates if we want our relationships to last.

Things to Try at Home

Things you and do to awaken your body’s organic intelligence:
  • Start noticing your thoughts instead of thinking and believing  them. Be curious and ask “Is it true . . . I should . . . lose weight? She should be nice to me? I should have a better job?” Who wouldn’t want these things of course! But when we think these thoughts most people feel more tense, more anxious, more irritated, more depressed. And they may not even be true.
  • SoulCollage® gives you a fun, relaxing and powerful way to outsmart your analyzing brain. Check out my next SoulCollage® workshop 
  • Read or listen to a great book published in 2009 by Rick Hanson, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and & Wisdom
  • HeartMath Institute researches how supporting heart intelligence enables the parasympathetic nervous system to bring natural ease and well-being into the body. They have discovered for example, that inhaling speeds up the heart and activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and the exhale activates the relaxation response in the parasympathetic nervous system. This change in the heart rate turns out to bring inner peace and even health. Stress and trauma decreased this heart rate variability. They sell a little biofeedback device that helps increase and anchor these natural healthy responses in heart rate.   
  • Somatic Experiencing® therapy also works by reviving the natural stress immunity of our body’s organic intelligence.  Give Suzie a call 503-224-3318 or email this gentle cutting edge approach for working with stress, difficult emotions like anxiety, depression, panic or anger and feel better naturally.

And above all else:       Don’t believe everything you think!

If you want help changing your stories, questioning your thoughts . . . call us. We're pretty good at doing this.  We've had lots of practice

503-342-2510    email us