Our latest article on reducing anxiety was published in the Chiswick Herald on page 31.
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Feel happier - reduce stress and anxiety - here’s how!
Stress comes from being under pressure, anxiety comes from prolonged stress, anxiety reduces our happiness - so anything we can do to reduce pressure will have a direct impact on happiness!
In this article I’m going to look at how, by paying attention to our thinking and the words we use to describe things we can become more relaxed, have less conflict with others and become happier. Initially, I will explain how we have a natural tendency towards the negative, the role of our thinking, how the words we use can make things worse for us and then offer an experiment to help you start to make changes. This article will deal with events that we might come across everyday - in the next article we will look at relationships.
When we experience being under pressure the experience is one that is alerted to us by a combination of our feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. Neuroscience is showing that our feelings are something over which we have very little control - our bodily sensations and feelings will be triggered in response to a perceived threat or pleasure and then our thoughts will try to make sense of what is happening and if it is a threat, to seek a solution.
Under pressure it is our thinking which often proves to be the weak link.
Thinking happens through our language, thoughts are the assigning of words to our experience and the biggest single problem with our language is how it contains so much scope for subjectivity combined with its tendency to see things as either positive or negative.
Being first and foremost concerned with our survival, negative judgements take precedence. For example, when we have a feeling we see as “good” we do not tend to dwell, analyse and procrastinate because there is nothing to be done, we are not under any possible threat. However when we have a feeling that we see as “bad” we naturally tend towards needing to find out what is “wrong”. The issue here is that we are already looking for something “bad” - we are starting with a bias.
Our experience of living may be made up of equally good and bad feelings but the importance given to the bad means the way we can end up looking at the world will be skewed towards the negative.
In addition, the difficulty of feelings that we experience as bad can mean we do not feel as though we have time to understand whether our judgement is correct. Instead our in built risk assessment systems will urge us to think about the worst scenario, draw upon our previous bad experiences and allow our adrenal systems to kick in and allow physiological action designed to save us.
Our very sensitive but not necessarily accurate systems are great for saving us when we really need it - where our safety is at risk - but it also influences us in low risk everyday situations where we find ourselves reacting to things and making negative judgements. I am not saying we stop judging but we recognise when we do this and how it has the potential to make us unhappy.
Here is an everyday example:
Imagine you are walking down the street - you narrowly miss stepping on some dog faeces. Whilst you are pleased you missed it you remember a previous time when you stepped in some dog “mess” and how annoyed you felt and the extra work involved in cleaning your shoes and the entrance hall carpet at home. The word “mess” combined with the previous memory triggers irritation and you think about how “irresponsible” people can be, that reminds you of how you found a new scratch on your car the previous week, you think “vandalism” and now you feel angry but also a little frightened. In turn that fear then reminds you of what you saw on the news about an increase in muggings in another part of the city. Now you think about how the city is changing and how crime is getting worse, how people are “dangerous” and you now feel unsafe.
Instead imagine this possibility:
Walking down the street you narrowly miss stepping in some dog faeces. Whilst you are pleased you missed it you remember a previous time when you stepped in some dog “mess” and how annoyed you felt and the extra work involved in cleaning your shoes and the entrance hall carpet at home.
NOW at this point - at the time of your initial reaction - try to train yourself to pause. You do this so that you can now look at the reaction and look firstly for words which are not purely descriptive - so ones that contain a subjective / judgement - in this case “mess” and secondly look at how this event today is triggering past negative events.
Now, having fully understood how you are reacting in a way that is amplifying the event and its negative impact on you, recall how you were feeling before this happened, take a second or so to fully experience yourself as you were.
Obviously it is unrealistic to expect yourself to do this every time something generates a negative thought and feeling however if you can start to do this occasionally you will start to understand how set backs, surprises, misunderstandings, disappointments etc end up with much more power than they fully warrant and how that can sabotage your happiness. In our next article we will look at how to apply this to relationships.