More types of thoughts to take off your mental repertoire

Right – so last time I talked about removing certain thoughts from your mental repertoire, particularly anticipatory thoughts (where you anticipate bad outcomes if you take minor risks like getting in a lift or going to the supermarket or talking at a meeting). I also talked about removing catastrophic thoughts (where you add catastrophic words, like ‘OMG!!! wouldn’t that be just the worst thing that could ever happen’ when talking about something fairly trivial like blushing or feeling slightly anxious. There are also inflexions that then often go on top of the catastrophic words, like a really exagerated tone (often high-pitched terror) that is played out either in your own head or verbally conveyed to another person. As well as that there is usually body language and gestures that support the catastrophic analysis, like grimaces of horror or frantic hand movements. I also briefly mentioned body scanning (where you scan your body to see if you have any ‘unusual’ feelings – like your heart beating too fast, or sweating, or feeling nausea, or trembling, or physical feelings of dread).

As I said last time it is really important to just stop all of these and remove them from your mental repertoire. Making the choice to remove them is a completely voluntary decision – you just need to notice your own thinking behaviour and stop bringing these thoughts into your attentional focus. This won’t turn you into a zombie it will just make you more realistic and less catastrophic!

Today, I want to add another type of thinking that I would also like you to remove. In ST, I call it collapse thinking. This is where you allow yourself to have thoughts along the lines of: ‘I can’t cope’ ‘what’s the point’ ‘I can’t do it’ ‘this is all too hard’ ‘I can’t control it’ ‘I don’t have the strength’ ‘I’m powerless’ ‘I’m weak’ ‘I can’t do it’. These sorts of thoughts are all about passivity, powerlessness, and giving up. They essentially lead to a type of mental collapse which can often be observed in the body language of the person. When people are having a lot of these types of passive thoughts, they can actually go weak and passive-looking in the body (a bit like a wet dish cloth that lacks a strong self-supporting structure) – I guess this happens because body engagement often reflects mental engagement.

Thinking you are incapable and without power as an individual, goes right to the heart of sense of self (or identity) because it invalidates you as a person who is able to influence outcomes, generally leading to non-assertive behaviour (either compliant or aggressive) which then generally doesn’t get you good outcomes (so it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle). When we engage in collapse thinking, we become passive, and we lose our connection and engagement with the wider world – seeing ourselves as passive victims of that world and therefore perceiving ourselves as being unable to properly participate or act strongly or advocate in our own best interests. This type of thinking stops you building a stronger sense of yourself.

People who are anxious almost always see themselves as passive in terms of ability to control outcomes. That is, anxious people often think that anxiety thoughts simply take them over as though they are passive victims of their own thought processes. While this is absolutely not true, and as adults with their full brain capacity, they have excellent control over their attentional focus (and therefore more broadly over their mental events), it is not surprising that anxious people often think this way.

This is simply because all of us build our brain as children exactly in accordance with whatever environment we find ourselves born into. When people have come from difficult backgrounds (see earlier blog), as most anxious people have, they have objectively lacked control. This is partly because their environment had objectively more threat events (which gave them more negative assumptions) and partly because, as children none of us have our their full frontal lobes of our brains, and in particular our PFC region, so our ability to control mental events is severely compromised as children. As we all do, people from difficult backgrounds take their earlier assumptions (in this case, about being powerless victims who are unable to control outcomes and unable to control mental events) forward into their adulthood as part of their internal dialogue, often in the form of collapse thoughts.

On the other hand, people who, through sheer luck were born into less difficult circumstances will also take their childhood assumptions forward in their internal dialogues. Their assumptions though, are more likely to be about being capable and powerful enough to fully engage with society and influence outcomes, and, as a result, they will be more likely – since they know they can control most aspects of their lives – to later assume control over their own mental events.

Of course, it is all very hit and miss in terms of what we get born into, but if you came from a more difficult background, and you find yourself entering into collapse thinking, now is the time to re-evaluate it, and make a decision to stop this type of self-sabotaging internal chatter. You can reliably influence outcomes (not all, but very many). Let go of the ones you cannot control like whether the plane will crash (because ruminating on these types of events will not affect the outcome) and instead increase drammatically the control you exert over outcomes that are able to be influenced.

Most specifically, you can exert enormous control over your own mental state. Be disciplined and stop allowing yourself to pay attention to collapse thoughts, just gently slip them off the repertoire and instead you might like to engage in a constructive activity which builds your sense of self and demonstrates your skill and power to your own brain. A couple of off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions are: start learning a musical instrument and then form a band and advocate within it to influence the direction of the music you would like to pursue. Alternatively, you could join a recreational club, political group, committee, environmental group, charity, sporting club or similar that aligns with your own values and advocate within it for improvements. Notice both of my suggestions are about engaging (not passive withdrawal) and they are about stepping-up and influencing outcomes within society. These sorts of constructive activities demonstrate to your own brain that the old, self-sabotaging thinking styles are outdated and obsolete and do not accurately reflect your new sense of self.