A few years ago, I was consulting with a company that went through an unexpected management shuffle, leaving most everyone in the company confused and a little on edge. A few weeks later, I happened to be chatting with the new CEO who, instead of losing his job, had been promoted. During the conversation, he was unusually candid and forthright. He told me he had no idea what to do in this new role and admitted that he was scared to death. He hoped he could pull it off before he “got found out.” His disclosure caught me off guard. I had always seen him as very capable, and one with high self-confidence. That he could be so unsure of himself left me wondering how many others are also hiding behind some sort of façade, terrified of getting found out?
Probably most of us.
While we all have a public persona, the one we present “on stage”, there is a much more private “you” that exists behind the curtain. The person behind the curtain is your self-image and is a creature you only vaguely know. Your self-image is the end result of years of life’s experiences, intertwined with your mental reactions to those experiences. It is maintained by your mental self-talk – those silent phrases, statements, observations, and thoughts that, for the most part, you unknowingly mumble to yourself, especially when you make mistakes or come up short.
Do any of your self-thoughts or silent statements sound anything like this?
• “When am I going to get this right?”
• “I’m such a dunce.”
• “Seems like everybody is doing better than me.”
• “How come I’m always late?”
• “How come I keep screwing up?”
• “I always forget what I have to do.”
• “If I lose my job, I won’t have any money. I need to work longer hours to keep this job. That just makes me more depressed. I’m so miserable. What am I going to do?”
Such thoughts may be replays of the past that, when they happened, generated anxiety or sadness. They might be incorrect worries about things that you have decided will probably happen in the future. For the most part, they are strings of thoughts that are blown way out of proportion, are part of a thought-pattern, consume time and energy, and most often, have no rational basis.
As untrue as most of these thoughts are, they flood your mind, drain your energy, stop you from living in the present moment, and create a thought loop that can be difficult to escape. They also make it harder to concentrate and accomplish daily tasks and they get in the way of your memory and sleep. They keep your brain operating in high beta, which is exhausting and dangerous. Your brain returns the favor by producing anxiety-generating chemicals and poisons, and by making you feel tired and miserable.
Can anything be done to stop this pattern of negative thinking and worry? Here’s a few ideas:
1. Accept That Most of What You Worry About is Just Not True
We tend to worry about things that we believe are true but, most of the time, are actually not true. You can balance your mind’s tendency to predict the worst outcome by coming up with positive alternative scenarios. For instance, your spouse seems distant and is sending out a lot of emails late at night, so you decide he must be having an affair. An alternative scenario: He is working extra hard on a project. Analyze what’s most likely to happen. Most of the time, the worst-case scenario your brain comes up with is not the most likely one. This is a mental thought process called “awfulizing.” You look at all the possibilities, find the ugliest one, and follow it out. Your brain accepts this as true and reacts accordingly. Accept the fact that less than 5% of what you worry about ever becomes real.
2. Write Things Down
Writing about your concerns brings clarity and insight and helps your unconscious mind to make new connections. Writing also allows you to return to the issue later. When thoughts are in your mind, they tend to be chaotic and fuzzy; putting them on paper organizes and clarifies them. Studies show that writing by hand is better than writing on a computer, but either way is far superior than not writing at all. Writing slows the brain. Once you’ve taken a few minutes to organize your thoughts in a journal or onscreen, your mind will be calmer. Feel free to set aside a time limit for thinking about them before taking a break and coming back to them later.
3. Use a Mantra to Induce an Alpha State
A mantra is a simple phrase or word that you repeat to calm your mind. Research has shown that closing your eyes and repeating a mantra slows the brain, increases alpha waves, and reduces activity in the part of your brain that spends time rehashing the past and worrying about the future. You can use any word, sound, or saying you want, like, “Om,” “Life is good,” or “Everything is OK.” Repeat your phrase over and over, focusing your thoughts only on your mantra. If your mind wanders, return to your mantra. You can practice this almost anytime, even going around the supermarket or on your commute home from work.
4. Practice Mindfulness or Meditate
Mindfulness is focusing on the present. Close your eyes and pay attention to the sounds going on around you. Concentrate on what you’re sensing. Put your focus to the present. It will help you accept and let go of what you cannot control. Become aware that you can’t change the past, and the future hasn’t happened yet, so stop thinking about them. Take a deep breath and become aware of how you are feeling right now.
5. Pay Attention to Your Breathing
Slowing your breathing shifts the fight-or-flight response of your sympathetic nervous system to the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Try counting to 3 as you breathe in and to 5 as you breathe out. Slow your breathing down. Your mind will wander, but just bring it back to your breathing. There are a number of great apps available to help you breath more effectively.
All of these techniques will help you to put at rest the incessant flow of poor self-talk and will slow your brain so you can transition from the fast beta brain state to the slower alpha brain state. Beta is for gathering information, while alpha is for processing new information, and for making new connections. This process is called consolidation and is critical to learning and to remembering information. Consolidation does not take place in beta. The more time you spend in alpha, the less anxious and worried you will be. You’ll also be able to more fully recognize when your brain is engaged in negative self-talk and will be able to stop it in its tracks.