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Unraveling the Threads of Anxiety: Stories in Our Heads

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

~~ Henry David Thoreau 

Greetings to all my precious people!!!  

We are reminded daily, sometimes hourly, that we are most certainly living in the Age of Anxiety.  Worldwide events, local disturbances, weather changes and interruptions within our own family systems continue to enter into our conscious and unconscious minds as we go about our daily activities.  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory says anxiety is most often a result of imbalances in the energetic and emotional systems of the body.  Qi, the vital energy force within the body, is meant to flow through the network of interconnected systems with ease, and without input from us, much like our blood moves through our veins.  But when we are upset, when we are feeling disturbed, frustrated, angry, sad, worried and more, these emotions tend to create congestion within the system, leading to imbalance and a sense of unease – and many times “dis-ease”.  Anxiety, along with other emotional disturbances, begins to appear via physical symptoms like racing heart, dizziness, dry mouth, sweaty palms, and more.

So many of us are familiar with these sensations.   Emotions are the human experiences of interaction in the world, and with each other, and are part of the learning journey in our life.  But we are all too ready at times to claim anxiety as our own.  Statements like “I have anxiety” or “I’m an anxious person” are as common as “I have brown eyes” but they are very much not the same.  Claiming anxiety as a statement of fact only reinforces this belief that our bodily sensations – the messengers from our brain – are meant to be treated as something “diagnosable” instead of something common and genuine to the human experience.   What is really going on here?  Can there be more to the discomfort and unease?  Might we choose to be curious and courageous about our responses and consider they might actually be our helpers? 

The labyrinth of our minds is filled with a web of narratives – intricate stories woven from experiences, perceptions, and interpretations. These narratives, however, are not merely tales for entertainment; they hold immense power over our emotions, shaping our reality and often manifesting as anxiety.  Anxiety, that relentless companion, frequently emerges from the stories we craft within ourselves. It’s as if our minds are storytellers, concocting gripping narratives that evoke fear, worry, and unease, often without factual foundation.

Consider the scenarios we build within our minds: the “what-ifs,” the catastrophic predictions, the imagined judgments of others. These narratives, while purely products of our imagination, possess the potency to stir a whirlwind of emotions, leaving us trapped in a cycle of distress.  One common storyline is the tale of catastrophizing – where our minds leap to the worst-case scenarios in any situation. A missed call from a friend may spiral into a story of abandonment, while a minor mistake at work unfolds into a narrative of imminent failure. These exaggerated tales often overshadow reality, amplifying our anxiety and leading us down paths of unnecessary distress.

Often the stories we craft in our mind revolve around perceptions of self-worth and acceptance. We construct tales about not being good enough, fear of rejection, or an unrelenting need for validation. These narratives dictate our actions, shaping our interactions and decisions as we strive to align with these self-imposed storylines, inadvertently fuelling our anxiety.

But why do we cling to stories that bring us such distress?  Because they feel familiar, almost comfortable, despite their adverse effects. Our minds tend to gravitate toward what is known, even if it means dwelling in anxious narratives, rather than embracing the uncertainty of rewriting our stories which created our beliefs.  But there might be a way to shift the focus of our mind by simply taking a moment to pause, and perhaps breathe.  The author and concentration camp survivor  Viktor Frankl wrote “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our responses. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

When we think about decision-making, which can precipitate anxiety, we probably think about the big choices in life as the ones that matter: what subjects to study, which job to take, house to buy or partner to settle down with. But Shane Parrish, entrepreneur, wisdom seeker and the founder of Farnam Street, the world’s most-read blog on clear thinking, asserts that it’s the smaller, everyday decisions that really shape our path. Choices like what to eat, how to respond to a tricky email or how to tackle a sensitive conversation with your partner. These decisions matter because they become our customary, quick-fire responses – behaviors or habits, which we struggle to change because we don’t fully understand that we’re even doing them.  And yes, these are also connected to the stories in our head which unconsciously fuel our anxiety and struggles with making the best choices for our situations.

During this video interview with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee Shane says that the most powerful story in the world is the one we repeatedly tell ourselves … and yet we don’t fully appreciate the impact this has on our lives.  We are all familiar with the inner monologue in our head, the incessant loop like a song on repeat, with a voice that is berating, unsupportive and non-productive. That voice doesn’t help us, it doesn’t allow us to reflect on our mistakes, it just becomes neverending noise to keep us in place, frozen and stuck.  But as soon as we recognize this pattern, we can begin to set new boundaries with the chatter in our heads by repeating 3 words:  NOT THIS TIME.  Just saying these simple three words creates a pause in the loop, allowing one to interrupt the habitual cycle of the negative voice.  That incessant loop has not helped us get what we want, has not been supportive of our dreams, and now, with practice, we can state NOT THIS TIME … and change the song, change the station we listen to.

In his latest book, Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results, Shane introduces the concept of personal rules as a powerful tool to override the ‘four defaults’ driving most human behavior: emotions, ego, social pressure and plain inertia.  Overcoming them usually means relying on willpower and white knuckling through the patterns. But rules – such as bedtimes, food choices, or technology limits – help us easily align decisions with our values and goals.   He introduces the powerful notion of playing life on ‘easy mode’ to put us in the best position for success – like setting the difficulty level on a video game in your favor. Shane also encourages us to reflect on the importance of separating problems from their solutions, and how awareness of the problem we are trying to solve lends clarity to the process.

Have you ever noticed that often our judgements, based on our first impressions, can be wrong? We bring our own biases, internal stories and values to the impressions we make. And we judge others based on our presumptions about them, without knowing their struggles, their grief and the burdens they carry.  But if we can begin to choose the pause/breathe space, it only takes a moment to go deeper and scratch the surface to discover what lies beneath. While it may have appeared, on the surface, that the people we work with, or encounter at the store or playground were there to be fully present and engaged, so much of what was driving their behaviors were unhealed wounds. Sadness over a failed marriage, anger and betrayal over a lost business and grief over losing a loved one.  We are all human, and everyone is trying to do the best they can with the tools and the experiences they carry.

How can we change the incessant looping of our internal narratives?  Acknowledging the power of these stories is the first step toward mitigating their impact. It involves recognizing the stories as they unfold within us, questioning their validity, and challenging their hold on our emotions. This process isn’t about negating our feelings but rather about cultivating a mindful awareness of the narratives we spin.  

So how can we live in that space? How do we eliminate judgment and move towards a more mindful approach with more acceptance of ourselves and others? Sociology professor at the University of Houston and author Brene Brown writes about what she calls ‘wholeheartedness.’  “When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our own worthiness,” she writes in her book Daring Greatly:  How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.  “That’s the crux of wholeheartedness. You are worthy now, not if, not when, but right now, this minute.”  In other words we need to accept ourselves, flaws and all, so that we can accept others too. So let’s make a pact not to judge others, or ourselves, but live knowing you are enough just as you are. And if you want to make changes to your life think ‘progress, not perfection.’

Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion can aid in unraveling these anxiety-inducing stories that lead to indecision and stuckness. By observing our thoughts without judgment and fostering self-kindness, we create space to reframe our narratives, offering ourselves a more balanced and realistic perspective.   Additionally, seeking support from trusted individuals or professionals can provide guidance in navigating these stories. Through therapy, counseling or coaching, we can explore the origins of these narratives and develop healthier coping mechanisms to reframe and diminish their influence on our mental well-being.

Remember, the stories in our heads are not set in stone. They are fluid, malleable narratives that we possess the power to rewrite. By cultivating mindfulness, self-compassion, and seeking support when needed, we can gradually diminish the grip of anxiety-inducing tales, paving the way for a more tranquil and empowered state of being.

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