“If we don’t recognize what is going on in our heads we find it easy to assume that somehow our anxieties come to us ready made from the outside. It can feel as though they are happening to us and that they are caused by something outside of us.”
According to Charles Merrett, clinical psychology as a treatment for anxiety doesn’t really work the way we’d like it to. And he should know . . . he’s been a clinical psychologist for more than 35 years. His recent book, “The Origin of Anxieties” is a culmination of what he’s learned about stress over the years and why the way most of us think about it is dead wrong.
The way people think and speak about anxiety (“EverydaySpeak” as Merrett calls it) is as if it is a condition, or something that has “happened” to you. The problem with this perspective is it relinquishes all control over the situation and makes people victims of their anxieties.
Merrett uses the example of “The Speeding Car” to illustrate his point. If you were standing in the middle of the road as a speeding car came headed straight towards you, you would be experiencing a great deal of anxiety. But if you were wearing your iPod headphones and had your back turned as the car bore down on you, you wouldn’t experience any anxiety at all. In other words, the anxiety is not in the car or in the situation, it is in you.
It is only when you become aware of the car and begin to attach significant meaning to the situation that the anxiety comes into play. Anxiety is not what we have it’s what we do. In some situations, “doing” anxiety can be helpful. (Preparing your body to leap out of the way of an oncoming car would be one good example.)
But attaching meaning to something has another effect also. Once we attach meaning to something we begin to notice it more. If we interpret something as stressful, not only do we “do anxiety” in response, but we also begin to pay more attention to it, leading to even more anxiety.
Merrett also explains how our brains have evolved to explore possibilities or to imagine things that aren’t true. This ability allows us to hope and plan for the future, to be creative and to innovate, and to test ideas in our minds before applying them in the real world. But it also allows us to worry, as we imagine potentially negative “what if” scenarios in our future.
“Our minds are rarely idle. If we are not engaged in some immediate task we spend much of our time going over the past or trying to imagine some aspect of the future.”
If we don’t understand how anxiety works, we are likely to be confused as to why we are feeling the way we are feeling: “Why do I feel this way?” “Why is this happening to me?” But if we understand this is something our minds are doing to test possibilities, then we can consider other possibilities. We can choose to focus our minds on different things. Anxiety is not what we have it’s what we do.
Merrett’s book serves a troubleshooting manual for the mind. If you know that anxiety is not what you have, but what you do, you can choose when and how much you will do it. I’m not an advocate of eliminating anxiety entirely (see my article on “the pain.”) For me, it’s more about developing your psychological flexibility and your ability to be master of your own mind, rather than a slave to it.
Have you been doing anxiety lately? Maybe it’s time to take back control of your mind.
References and recommended reading:
Merrett, C. (2011). The Origin of Anxieties. Minds Eye Books.
by Jeremy McCarthy