The “I” of the Storm

Years before I started my daily spiritual practice, I spent most of my time in a state of worry.  I was nicknamed “the worry wart” in my junior year of high school and it was actually published in that yearbook.

Worry consumed my life.  It gave me a stomach ache to the point I would throw up before school or feel nauseated everyday at school.  Then the worry intensified, as I worried I would throw up at school and embarrass myself. From there it became anytime I was in public, I would look around my surroundings to find the “exit” sign in order to have an escape route. I was consumed by worry and the “what ifs” of life to the point it was debilitating. I would leave class early, I would avoid public places, all from the worry I would lose control and vomit.

I felt unhappy and I was losing my social life. I wanted the worry to go away. I wanted change. I wanted to release the fear that throwing up in public was causing me, I mean, so what if I threw up? What’s the big deal and what is the worst thing that can happen if I did? Good news is, I am stubborn and also curious, so my inner detective decided that in order for me to change, I had to know how my mind worked and how I could work with it to start to loosen the grip anxiety had on me.

Thoughts that circulate in the mind and ruminate over and over in circles, like the spirals of a tornado, is a medical condition called rumination. And just as a tornado is destructive, thoughts of worry and anxiety are equally destructive. They keep us in the doghouse and keep us suffering. Rumination is a punitive form of self punishment. Rumination is repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion or resolution. Adding more wind to the storm, the repetition and the feelings of inadequacy to stop the thinking raise anxiety even more, which creates a positive feedback loop, meaning the brain neurons are set on repeat. Ruminating is worsened by the brain’s inability to flexibly generate solutions and the chemistry of neurotransmitters that are hardwired in, both making it hard to switch to another perspective to find the way out of problems.

The brain is like a computer in that the memory of the brain stores the experiences of the past and draws upon those past experiences to explain what it expects in the future. For example, when I entered into a situation of being in public, even if it were for something fun, my brain lit up connections to the times I was a worrisome worry wart at school and it would give me the same nauseated feeling of anxiety.
Fortunately, as with any computer program, we are able to upgrade to new brain software programming.

Here are three steps I took to change my programming:

1. I allowed the worry to change to curiosity. What was it that I was so afraid of? The puke? Losing control? Having people laugh at me or get grossed out?
And then what would happen, would I die? No.
When I focused on the why, it shifted my focus onto a bigger picture, which actually distracted me and took me out of the circulating thoughts.

2. Giving myself choices. “I could stay in the situation that is causing me discomfort or I can stay and breathe through it. I have control over this choice. Which one will I choose”? In the beginning of this practice, I left the situation more often than not, but over enough times of feeling my discomfort I decided to stay when I realized that I never actually threw up. It was making a choice to live with the discomfort and carry on anyway. And by making a new choice, I set my brain in a new direction which eventually broke up the internal storm of thoughts.

3. I started giving my anxiety a voice. I allowed it to speak to me to say, “I am fearful of losing control because I don’t have enough control in my life right now and I need to feel safe”. My body was telling me through my stomach aches that I wasn’t feeling safe in my life and didn’t think I had any control to change. By voicing that fear, was another step I needed to take back my power. By voicing my fear, I could then change the message I was saying to create a new positive affirmation…I am safe and am willing to let go of the fear.

These three things:

Curiosity
Choices
Clarity of voice

~Clarity of thought, gives new choices which shifts your power~

In combination, these tools gave me a new outlook and a way to practice staying in the moment and leaving the twister of my mind, the circulating ruminating thoughts of anxiety.

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