4. Recognize the “toxic ten” thoughts which keep you in a state of fear, shame and guilt. You cannot bear the discomfort of anxiety unless you figure out what tricks it uses to “kidnap” you. Although the brain is only two percent of the body’s weight, it takes about 20 percent of our energy and oxygen – and more in those who suffer from anxiety. At any given moment, some 100 million bits of information impact on the nervous system from organs including our ears, eyes and skin. Most people shift 99 percent of this information to the “junk mail” section of their brain before they are conscious of its existence. But in anxiety-ridden people, this screening apparatus is defective, allowing too much information to flood the mind. This is what causes the person to feel overexcited and overwhelmed. They must make a conscious effort to do this shifting process until it becomes automatic. For example:
Stop looking for perfection: Forget about looking perfect, making perfect food or being the perfect child/parent/teacher/worker, etc. Strive to be “high normal.” It’s not only humbling but also calming for the nerves.
Stop obsessing about what others think: People’s feelings and opinions are not in our control. We cannot attend all the social events, help everyone who asks for our help or win everyone’s approval. We cannot force anyone to give us love, understanding or respect. We cannot get anyone to stop an addiction, to become more/less religious, to be less lazy or more aware. We can do our best to be polite, kind and caring, but no power in the world can get people to change their feelings or beliefs unless they want to do so. We are all limited. People – especially the demanding types – will always be disappointed and frustrated.
Don’t confuse danger with discomfort: Life’s discomforts are not dangerous. We will experience endless physical and emotional discomforts – accidents, spills, messes or missed opportunities. Think, “If there is no true sakana (danger) or real avaira (sin), then it is trivial.” Tell yourself, “I can cope with this and find solutions.” You missed the simcha? It’s a discomfort, not a danger. Your house is not perfectly neat and clean at all times? It’s a discomfort, not a danger. Things break, get lost and get ruined? It is uncomfortable to be hungry; but it is not dangerous unless you are starving. It is uncomfortable for your relatives to dislike you, but it is not dangerous unless they are truly abusive.
Don’t second-guess God: You might think, “I momentarily lost my concentration during prayer and will suffer some terrible punishment.” Can you know that God has not forgiven you? Be responsible and conscientious, but realize that uncontrolled anxiety is an insidious form of self-torture.
Avoid “victim” thoughts: Toss thoughts such as, “I’m a victim of my moods and cravings.” “I have nothing to contribute to the world.” “Hashem is out to get me.” “No one could possibly love me.” “I’m a failure because I’m not ____ (rich, beautiful, always cheerful, good at math, organized, etc.)” “I can’t change, because my parents were….”
Avoid “what if…” scenarios: Since the future is in Hashem’s hands, refuse to torture yourself with questions such as, “What if Iran attacks?” “What if my in-laws/children don’t like me?” “What if I get fired from my job?” “What if I never get married or I get married and my spouse suddenly leaves me or becomes abusive?” “What if I lose my mind and go insane?” “What if I go to shul and no one greets me?” “What if I make a fool of myself in public?” “What if I get caught by the police and get falsely accused and imprisoned for something I never did?” “What if I don’t pass the test?”
There is no end to the possibilities which a fear-mongering amygdala can imagine.
When anxiety arises, do not try to control it. If you feel cold, you cannot will yourself to feel hot. You can only change actions, such as putting on the air conditioning or a sweater, or bear the discomfort until it passes. You cannot force yourself to love everyone, but you can be compassionate or stay away. Trying to force the anxiety away only makes it worse. You can only think “secure thoughts” or take positive actions. You can breathe calmly, clean the house, pray, sing, write, learn, go shopping, or do something else that distracts you from that pesky amygdala.