How to get out of your head in stressful situations

How to get out of your head in stressful situations

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle is one of those trendy new-age spirituality books that many of you have likely heard of. I’m sure there are plenty of blog posts summarizing it and book reviews either praising or hating it. (Here’s mine.)

So in this post, I’ll skip the full summary and just focus solely on the number one thing I took away from the book: a super simple and practical tool that helps get me out of my head in stressful or anxious situations. To do that, let’s first get into some background for those who haven’t read the book.

You are not your mind

Tolle writes about what he calls “watching the thinker”, which is paying attention to the voice inside your head, but doing so as an impartial witness. Doing this allows you to recognize that you are not that voice, and thus you don’t have to entertain nor agree with everything it says.

So when you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. … You feel a conscious presence — your deeper self — behind or underneath the thought, as it were. The thought then loses its power over you and quickly subsides, because you are no longer energizing the mind through identification with it. This is the beginning of the end of involuntary and compulsive thinking.

When I’m in a stressful situation, whether I’ve just committed a social faux pas, or I’m dwelling on a personal failure, the common theme is that my mind will likely be racing. This very much feels involuntary and difficult to turn off.

So what’s to be done?

The single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment is this: learn to disidentify from your mind.

This of course is a process that takes practice to master, but I have noticed immediate effects even from the first time I tried to witness my mind as separate from myself. It’s like being afraid of the huge monster until you see that it’s just a tiny bug’s shadow projected onto the wall. After that, you couldn’t convince yourself to be scared even if you tried.

One day you may catch yourself smiling at the voice in your head, as you would smile at the antics of a child. This means you no longer take the content of your mind all that seriously, as your sense of self does not depend on it.

There’s an important implication here that no matter how “enlightened” we become, our mind will always come up with negative, paranoid, or preposterous content. It’s not that this will change, but rather that we will no longer identify with it, no longer assume its validity, and will go as far as to smile at how outlandish it is.

You’re not your emotions either

Mind, in the way I use the word, is not just thought. It includes your emotions as well as all unconscious mental-emotional reactive patterns. Emotion arises at the place where mind and body meet. It is the body’s reaction to your mind — or you might say, a reflection of your mind in the body. For example, an attack thought or a hostile thought will create a build-up of energy in the body that we call anger.

Just as we easily identify with the thoughts our mind has, we also fall into the trap of identifying with how we feel.

I am angry. I am sad. Instead, we can frame it as merely an emotion we feel, not something we are. Feelings come and go.

The question

So, here it is.  With an awareness that you are not your mind, the next time you’re stressed:

Make it a habit to ask yourself: What’s going on inside me at this moment?

Take a moment and just observe. What thoughts are coming up? What emotions am I feeling? Is there any physical response happening?

An important note here is, “don’t analyze, just watch.” Maintain a separateness from your mind as an outside observer. Then “feel the energy of the emotion.” Remember that emotions are the body’s natural reaction to your mind. They are not to be judged, but merely observed. It’s okay they are happening.

This reminds me of a quote that was shared with me the other day:

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It’s okay to have a meltdown.  It’s okay that your mind will have negative, self-defeating thoughts. It’s okay that emotions will arise from those thoughts, and that you will feel physical discomfort sometimes.

Let me summarize the process. Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is [accumulated pain] . Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it — don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you.

To be able to pause for a moment in a stressful situation and take an honest look at what’s really going on inside of your mind is to give yourself a real chance. If you can’t break the identification with yourself and your mind, you have no chance. You will be a slave to whatever irrational thoughts come up. You will reduce yourself to being your emotions.

Using this technique has completely changed my perspective. As someone who tends to over-analyze and worry, being able to step outside of that has been like opening a window in a smoke-filled room. I can breathe. I have hope. Everything will be okay.

Let me know if you try this technique and how it works for you!

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Joyce Meyer – Moving Beyond Worry and Anxiety

Watched another Joyce Meyer video today.

Joyce says, “You can choose your own thoughts; you don’t have to just think whatever falls in your head.  You can cast out wrong things and choose right things.”

That reminded me of something I saw on Twitter yesterday: @Leyla_N tweeted, “Thoughts come & go, you don’t have to believe them all. Choose empowering thoughts… take empowering actions.”

Its important to heed this advice because, as Joyce goes on to say, our thoughts are the place where worry really starts.

When faced with a problem, we can either worry or we can choose to trust God.

At this point in the video, Joyce said, “Worry, anxiety, reasoning – three major torments in our life.”  I don’t think I fully understand what she means there.  I really value reasoning as I think it can be an extremely powerful life guide.  Is she suggesting that we forfeit all reason in favor of complete trust in God?  Or was she simply saying that reasoning is one of our bigger problems – which I agree it is can be.  Reasoning is a powerful tool but too often in my own life I use it ultimately against myself.  I try and reason my way in or out of things rather than follow my heart or my intuition.  This goes hand in hand with over analyzing.  In fact, this is one of the tougher balances for me to achieve in my life.

Joyce uses the word “violent” in reference to how we should cast out our negative thoughts.   And I liked that because sometimes that’s how intense it needs to be!  To think to yourself “I’ll probably fail” or “I can’t”… is there any room for those thoughts in your mind?  There shouldn’t be.  And when you find yourself thinking them, you should cast them out with force.

I read a piece of advice awhile back (I think it was in Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker – which, by the way, is an excellent book and one that I think everyone – literally everyone – should read!) that relates to this.  It says that every time you have a negative thought, you should think (or even say aloud) “CANCEL.”  And the theory is that this will help you to break the habit of negativity.

Next in the video, Joyce talks about being passive – which has been a real topic of interest for my lately.  More and more I’m seeing how being passive is one of the worst things to do.  Its so inefficient – nothing gets done.  And when something does get done, its all you can do to hope it turned out how you would have wanted it.  Being passive means not taking control of your own life.  It involves sitting around, waiting, wishing.  And as Joyce says, it requires no backbone.  You think someone else should solve the problem.

Instead, Joyce suggests we be “aggressive against the enemy” (and here she’s referring to Satan, but we can also consider it to be any negative influence in our lives – such as my lack of motivation and passive behavior.)  Stand up for yourself – there doesn’t have to be someone to stand up against, just take action and make change and accomplish something.

Now she makes a distinction here: “Worry sees the problem but faith sees the God who can handle the problem.”  She says its not wrong to look at the problem – we need to look at it so that we can analyze it and figure out where it stands.  But its a slippery slope to worrying and over analyzing.

She commented on the interesting social norm that some people feel like they aren’t being a good parent if they don’t worry about their kids.  It made me think about the other areas of life where we’re encouraged to worry.  I myself have been conditioned to feel pressure to worry about my future.  Everything from getting good grades to getting into college, (you know the cycle) to picking a “realistic” major, getting a good job, paying your bills, etc.  Basically: not messing up.  These are great things to be aware of, and to keep in mind when making decisions and planning your life.  And by no means am I suggesting you should ignore them or just completely wing it and hope for the best.

But the amount of pressure we can feel just causes us to have FEAR.  Fear of messing up.  Do you know anyone who has never messed up and who won’t continue to mess up?  Its unavoidable, and that’s why this is a completely, completely irrational fear, and that is what’s unrealistic.  (For some wise words on being realistic, check out this Will Smith video, at 5:49 in.)

What may be worse is the irony at play – I’m way less likely to take chances to better my life because of this fear of failure that I have, because of the fear of messing up my life, which stems from worry.  But the likely outcome is that I will just create more to worry about!  Whereas if I just trust in God (or trust in myself and my intelligence and my abilities, or whatever) then chances are, things would work out for me.

Joyce says that when we have trust, we can enjoy the journey.  She also says, “When you pray and then you worry, the worry nullifies your prayer.  Prayer is something you do instead of worry.  Its not something you do with worry, its what you do instead of worry.  …  If we pray and then worry, we’re saying with our mouth that we’re depending on God but we’re saying with our actions that we don’t really believe that God’s going to come through so we’re going to worry and have a backup plan just in case he doesn’t.”

This makes me wonder how to find the balance between responsibility, avoidance, and trust.  Is it safe to perhaps deny our seemingly bad situation under the trust that it will work out?  Is it irresponsible to allow things to stay the same and not actively change them ourselves?  And if we decide to make a change, how will we know when we are acting from ourselves (ie the backup plan) or acting from God?  When our problem gets solved, was it us or was it God?  How long do we trust God before giving up and trying to solve it ourselves?

But perhaps there isn’t some spiritual equilibrium to find.  Perhaps no balance is required at all.  Perhaps all we need is to trust in God.  Maybe what’s unbalanced is when we decide to trust ourselves, because we are not nearly as deserving of trust as God is.  (I guess then its a question of credibility.)

Having complete trust in God requires a huge level of surrender.  Not only is that scary, but if it turns out to be a bad idea, then in hindsight it was pretty irresponsible and potentially dangerous.  This worries me.

For me, I find that the subject of faith and worry is a catch 22.  I worry about something, then wonder if I should just trust God.  But as I’m not a religious person and thus not strong in any faith, I worry that trusting God might not be the correct solution.  So now I’m not only worried about my initial problem but also about whether or not I should be worried.  (And I do see the humor in this.)

It seems to me, that for someone who has faith that God exists and that He is good, then trusting Him completely is obviously the way to go.  Why would you ever not trust Him?  And if you trust Him, then it would make sense to also trust His timing.  (I like this pin on Pinterest.)  I see the logical progression here but what I am waiting on is that first acceptance.  The acceptance that God exists.  When/If I come to that conclusion, then I have a whole line of beliefs that will come with it.  But its that first one, which determines the validity of the others.

That’s where my interest in Christianity lies, I suppose.  In learning more and finding out more about God.  And in the hopes that I will learn more about myself in the process.

I’ll conclude with a few lines that I particularly enjoyed from the video:

“God is greater than any problem that you have.”

“You’re talkin’ to yourself anyway, you might as well start saying something that makes sense!”

Do you have complete trust in God?  How do you balance having faith and taking personal responsibility for the course of your life?