So I just wanted to clarify how we can interrupt the brain’s fire & wire connections. So can i do this by saying attitude statements to myself such as “So what? Who cares? It’s no big deal?”
Or can I also do it by trying to not think negatively about an upcoming event that triggers my anxiety. For example, if I know I have to go out somewhere that caused me to feel high levels of anxiety in the past, should I try to think positive thoughts about it, instead of dwelling negatively about it? Should I say things like , “ it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be okay and alright. I will have a good time.” In the past, I’ve associated certain people with fear and I’ve compared myself to others and this caused me to overthink what I should say or how I should act in upcoming events. I realized that when I try to hard to act a certain way, I feel more anxious. But when I don’t think about it too much, I am able to act more like myself. I was wondering if anyone could help me out with my questions.
It is good to understand that, as much as anxiety feels (and indeed is) and emotional roller coaster, the answer lies not directly through these feelings (which we can’t trust anyway), but instead through the slow, steady progress of reforming the way our brain pathways work. It’s a physical thing - a physical thing in the brain - a physical thing that can be changed.
For me, at least, this provides some comfort. Because this means that it is not some hocus-pocus, not some “put on a happy face”, not dependent on whether I have the strenght of character or some innate quality to my character that will either allow me to get this done or not. Instead, it’s a physical thing that we all can change, through our efforts, efforts that everyone has within their reach. Again, I know it’s not “easy”, but it’s very much possible.
So we understand now that anxiety begins for whatever reason, and that over time reactions, thoughts, behaviors, habits, actions are formed and done exactly because of how we have constructed neural pathways in our brains. These neural pathways are the ones we’ve used most, strengthened most. By now they feel strongest and thus, natural. We may not even question that it could be another way. And yet, it can. If we had never gone down this road of strengthening these pathways, we would have been stengthening others. There’s always going to be some sort of neural pathway in your brain based upon how you think and behave and react, so this is not that we will erase a pathway. This is just, we want to create a new pathway that we use more, and that becomes stronger, so that the other one weakens and goes away. And pathways are created by associations and cause and effect (if allowed to happen). Something happens, result is a thought that leads to feeling/action. That is the fire and wire. Each time that happens, the stronger that “road” that pathway becomes.
This is how our brains work in all situations. We have relationships with people. We might have a tense relationship with one person because we have a history of stressful conversations or situations or experience that thus ends up now being able to fly off the handle more easily. We use that neural pathway with that person. The habit is set. It’s not set forever, but it’s the strong one we use. We could change even that. We have another pathway that we’ve used to play soccer, one that, through repeated practice, allows our feel for the game and coordination become more fluid, automatic. The more you use it and practice that the stronger it will become, without even thinking. It’s automatic.
To apply this to our therapy, we are trying to interrupt previously negative pathways and ultimately replace them with newer, rational, healthy pathways. So the start of a pattern is that fire and wire part. Trigger, thought, reaction, result. If at any point on that pathway you interrupt the natural progression of that pathway, you are interrupting the fire/wire process of that pathway, and naturally you are thus starting to form an alternative pathway. Previously something fired and wired to anxiety. If something fires now and instead you can say, “Wait, hold on, it might not be that bad” and then continue with other therapy ideas, you have successfully interrupted that fire/wire connection JUST by doing that. You may not feel it is enough now, but YES INDEED, this is part of interrupting the fire wire process.
If you have an upcoming event for which in the past your go-to behavior was ALWAYS to worry about, but if you now decide to apply ANTs stoppage and even for a moment find a distraction and give your brain a break by NOT thinking about it, you have interrupted the fire wire connection just by doing that. Yes, at this point you may still go back to anxiety after a few minutes, or days, or whatever, but each time, that is another opportunity to at least interrupt the process of the old fire/wire and to give yourself a new option. You’re laying just the smallest of tracks now, but that’s how you have to do it. You have to start small and build upon it.
When you say things now like “it’s going to be fun, or I will have a good time” - if your brain can truly accept those statements then great. But, be careful about going too positive if your brain doesn’t accept such feelings now - most of ours would not. And thus that gets us into false expectations. Instead you might keep your language neutral with coping and attitude statements at this point. Are you really going to have fun? Maybe not, so you can recognize that fact while also recognizing that you will survive, it’s going to be okay, it’s not as bad as maybe you think it is, so what, who cares?!
When you say things that go too positive too fast, this is where we may get into risk of pressure ane expectations. Just like you pointed out, “When I try too hard to act a certain way, I feel more anxious.” So at this stage, if you are forcing it too fast, your brain doesn’t believe that for real. Rationally maybe, but not for real deep down as a feeling/belief. Take it step by step.
What you discuss as starting to go conditional, and then even changing it to healthy positive self-talk begins with the strategies of Turning the Tables on the ANTs part I, II, and III, which are in Sessions 10, 11, and 12 respectively.
So, you see how this all builds upon itself slowly, gradually and in the right way. Most of us can’t introduce such positivity so fast as there is no way years of these feelings can be overturned by what then becomes just empty mantras. And empty mantras is what a lot of therapy tries to sell you. First you get the brain ready to accept reational statements, and ones that are very neutral, (conditional we say). We spend time on that. Then we spend time turning these more and more into healthy, but STILL rational statements. The brain works and changes only through information that it accepts. It doesn’t accept what it feels it doesn’t believe, and it won’t accept what it knows doesn’t feel right. So if you’re feeling anxious and you’re telling your brain you’re having a great time - well that just doesn’t match reality. But there is still therapy to be done in those moments, rational therapy as discussed in these sessions. But this is the pitfall people get into. Perhaps going too positive too fast, not taking the steps one by one, pushing too hard to turn it around - all with good intentions, but then it won’t work that way. And when it doesn’t, they get down, have a setback, and THEREIN lies the pressure people constantly apply to this process.
I hope that helps to get at some of your thoughts here.
Thank you. Your response was very helpful. I understand why it is better to use neutral statements at this point in therapy instead of being too positive too fast. I will say things like “ Everything will be okay. I will be fine. This is not going to end my life. I will survive. Who cares? So what? I’m not going to dwell on these thoughts anymore.” I will try to use say and think conditional things to myself moving forward. I will try to continue repeating my rational coping statements as well as the attitude statements everyday. I have one other question. If I’m in a social situation with people where I suddenly feel the rush of adrenaline, what do you suggest I do in that moment because if I’m around other people I likely won’t have the chance to say all these statements to myself. Should I just continue using slow talk? Or try to think rationally… I remember in one of the handouts for session 5, it says that with practice, some of the attitude statements will pop up automatically in the brain.
There are going to be lots of times where you’re going to feel suddenly put on the spot or flooded because we can’t control this world. Sometimes the only thing we can do is Slow Talk. When things “pop” into your mind, if they do, that’s from doing this time and time again in your therapy practice. Hopefully it does pop into your mind and you can say that to yourself. But, a lot of people seem to think or to ask how they apply cognitive to the situation. Cognitive is more or less done in preparation of the situation, and yes, can be used to be rational with ourselves before and CERTAINLY after when the tendency is to beat ourselves up or over-think it. It’s right then, right after something which you have to CUT off that train off thought and use the therapy techniques, so there yes, in comes the cognitive. And again, to point it out, when you do that, you are again interrupting the fire and wire old habit of rethinking it, whether you feel/realize it or not. But in the moment of anxiety, often all we can really do is slow down, loosen up, slow talk. If you can say or think something to yourself, great. Maybe you can’t. So, slow down. This slowing down and Slow Talk automatically works against adrenaline. By the use of Slow Talk, your breathing has to slow also. Thus all this practice. Repeated practicing of slowing down and Slow Talk at home will start to remind the body of that calmer feeling and it will follow suit (to a degree - to the degree which this habit has been reinforced by you). Slow Talk, just by doing that, hits those other physical parts of the body which then naturally act to reduce what could have been higher amounts of adrenaline. It might not feel perfect. It might not stop everything, but it helps. And you don’t have, in that moment, much else to be able to focus on or use. Slow Talk is rather an easier thing to focus on and actually use during such moments, with great benefit. Before and after such moments, be rational with yourself. Those are huge moments to use for your advantage or to hurt you and keep anxiety alive. You can either dwell on it happening, like we’ve always done. Or you can decide to be rationally healthy towards yourself and say, “Okay, that happened. So What? So I felt a little/ a lot of anxiety just then. I got through it. At least I was able to use some Slow Talk and that did help at least a little. I wasn’t able to do that in the past, but I could then.” Your rational self talk can keep going in that way, however it works for you. But these “setback” potential moments are also HUGE opportunities for rational therapy right when you should be applying rational therapy.
The other strategy to use in such moments, is External Focusing. We don’t really discuss that formally until Session 17, but we do bring this up in 6 with the Look Around Technique. They are similar ideas. At such moments of high anxiety. Get the focus out of your mind, and off of feelings in yourself. Get your focus out, pay attention to what others are saying. Pay real attention, be an active listener, the more the better. So that your mind has less chance to wander back inside. You want your thoughts out there, not in here worrying and playing around while the world is happening around you. When you can get your thinking out of your mind and more focused on what is happening out there, it has less of a chance to be inside you stirring up all that junk.
This makes more sense to me now. Thank you. The beginning sessions are cognitive strategies so soon I will learn behavioral strategies that I can implement even more into my daily life. The external focusing technique sounds definitely like something I will use! I can’t wait to learn those new strategies as time progresses! I appreciate your help!!