We all have times when everything gets too much. There are many issues to face, things to do, plan and action to be taken. Sometimes, we feel overwhelmed, paralyzed and wonder how we will get through. Life as it is, does seem to throw the proverbial “spanner in the works” sometimes and we often feel that life is unfair or that we do not deserve what is being thrown at us. Not without reason, did Scott Peck state in his famous, best selling book “The Road Less Traveled”, that life is difficult and we should see it as a series of problems to be faced and overcome. I quote:
“The attempt to avoid legitimate suffering lies at the root of all emotional illness. When we avoid the legitimate suffering that results from dealing with problems, we also avoid the growth that problems demand from us. It is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.” Scott Peck
As we are the most advanced species on the planet (allegedly), we have been given the ability to analyze, predict, draw on experience and engage in decision-making. We are conscious, self-aware beings who can choose our own path willingly but how often one might think that this is definitely not the case. How many times do we see people falling apart trapped in a cycle of indecision, fear and anxiety about moving forward; The result is they do nothing (also a choice) and end up berating themselves, getting frustrated with the world and the people around them, using such terms as ” I can’t”. Quoting Peck again:
“Many seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying, this problem was caused me by other people, or by circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. I can solve a problem only when I say this is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.”
I observe the behavior described above often in my daily work. People become paralyzed with fear and are unable to see “the wood from the trees”. However, this is generally self imposed as a way of avoiding and dealing with issues. They don’t trust themselves because they have never been trusted and taught to face issues and problems. The basis of this comes from “What If” thinking.
One of my favorite saying is… “If you are depressed, you live in the past, if you are anxious, you live in the future, if you are ok, you live in the present”. True as this statement is, it does not start to describe the processes that drive the disorders mentioned. However, when I deal with clients who suffer from depression and anxiety. Rumination is a key element of their thinking. Rumination of course, takes you out of the present moment and leaves the mind vulnerable to irrational thinking.
When we ruminate, we are in effect asking our mind to solve problems, something it will gladly do. This is in contrast to reflection where we stay in the present moment to analyze and learn. One of the drivers of rumination (among others) is the “what if” question. “What if this or that happens?”, “What if she or he leaves me?”, “What if I do this or that?”, or “What if I had done this or that?”. Once this type of thinking process starts, rumination is inevitable and can last for hours, even days. It can ruin moods, start depression, fuel anxiety and sabotage plans made. It is also extremely hard to counter and can become habitual. With some, once triggered, it can become an automatic response to issues that might be easily solved by staying “present”.
I have found that two methods really help with the issue. They are difficult to practice but once mastered bring high reward. Once is conscious thinking, this means learning to recognize when rumination is starting and “dragging” yourself back into the present moment. This can be done by being aware of what is around you, in that very moment using senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste. Some will use items such as raisins or chocolate to help this.
The second and maybe more effective is to counter the “what if” questions with evidence and logic. I hear many of my clients say “logically, I believe this to be true but emotionally, I cannot get my head around it”. I always counter this by reminding them that it is perfectly ok to believe the more “adult logical” voice than the “child-like” emotional version, the basis of “what if”. Using the real evidence and countering irrational thinking will bring us back to the present where we can make decisions based on the “here and now” and what is really happening.
I often teach my clients that they truly can control this thinking by placing a “breaker switch” in the process. This means consciously and with self-awareness analyzing the situation in the moment. Instead of “what if” questions (the normal drivers of fear), more functional questioning can be used. By staying in the moment, we are not allowing the dysfunctional past or an imagined future to rule our response. Hard work this may be but the rewards are great.