Many of us spend a lot of time fretting over aspects of our lives that might turn out badly in the future. Maybe it’s the fear that we’ll mess up a project at work, that we won’t be able to pay the bills next month, that we’ll have some type of medical crisis, or something else—I could go on for hundreds of pages with possible examples. In all these situations, we worry that something may happen in the world that will create pain or difficulty in our lives.
I used to be plagued by anxiety about negative events that might happen in my life. These days, however, I continually surprise myself with how little I worry about possible setbacks I may face. Much of my change, I believe, happened when I recognized that an event in the world can only make me suffer if I allow myself to react negatively to it. In other words, I acknowledged that my own emotional reactions—not the things that happen around me—are ultimately responsible for any suffering in my life.
I had this realization when I made a few observations about how my mind works when I worry about something. I saw that, when I worry, I imagine something happening out in the world—my intimate relationship ending, my car crashing, or something else. With this mental image of a possible negative future comes discomfort in my body—tension in my neck and shoulders, unpleasant warmth in my face, and so on.
More importantly, I became aware of what I don’t normally focus on when I’m worrying. I saw that, when I’m watching a mental movie of a bad future event, my focus is entirely on what’s going on outside me in the picture—my house burning down, my computer being destroyed by viruses, and so on. I put no attention, however, on my experience of the event—how I’m reacting and feeling, and what I’m doing, in the picture.
I was curious about how putting some attention on myself might affect my experience of my anxiety scenarios. Thus, I decided to experiment with visualizing a negative event as I usually would, but this time focusing on how I was feeling and responding in the imaginary situation. I tried this exercise several times with different possible events I tended to get anxious about.
As one example, a while back, I was having nearly constant trouble with my car for various reasons, and I was often concerned that the car would break down in the middle of the highway or some other inconvenient place. To run my new experiment with this anxiety, I brought up my standard mental picture of my car stopping in the middle of a packed freeway, with smoke billowing out of the hood. This time, however, I brought my awareness to myself sitting in the driver’s seat, and to what I was thinking and feeling in the imaginary situation.
When I put some attention on my mental image of myself, my perspective on the event noticeably shifted. It no longer seemed so obvious that my car breaking down on the highway was a disastrous, terrifying event, and the discomfort that used to seize my body when I thought about this scenario began to fade away. I started to recognize how much control I had over the way I reacted to and interpreted the event. I could choose to “flip out” over it and make it a stressful and uncomfortable experience. Or, I could decide to stay composed and focus on what, if anything, I could do about the problem. This sense of choice was empowering and calming—while I held my power to choose my response in my awareness, anxiety simply didn’t enter the picture.
I also realized that, when I imagined negative future scenarios without directing any attention to my own role in them, I lost sight of my ability to decide how to respond to events in my life. When I wasn’t conscious of that power, it seemed like the world and what happened in it could dictate how I felt and what I experienced, without any input from me. This perspective had me feel helpless and frightened, and see the world as an oppressive and threatening place. With this outlook on life, it was no wonder I was anxiety-prone.
I kept working through my various anxieties using this technique—simply visualizing each event I feared would happen, but placing my attention on myself in the mental picture. Each time, the physical discomfort I used to experience when I imagined a future problem lessened, and I began to generally feel more peaceful and focused.
Some time later, when I started learning about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and hypnotherapy, I noticed my method was similar to what practitioners of hypnotherapy and NLP call dissociation. A therapist dissociates a client when the therapist asks them to visualize a past or future event in their life, but to watch the event from a third-person perspective, observing it as if watching him- or herself in a movie.
When a client visualizes a troublesome possible event while dissociated, users of NLP and hypnotherapy say, the client feels calmer and more ready to take on the potential problem. Psychologist Stephen Wolinsky, for example, describes the empowering effects of experiencing an anxiety scenario while dissociated in Trances People Live: Healing Approaches In Quantum Psychology:
We need to have the new and different experience of discovering that we are more than or larger than the source of distress with which we are so typically identified. If I learn to move outside this misidentification so that I can view it, observe it, describe it, . . . in short, if I am the knower of the problem, then I am bigger than it. Simply put, it is not me. . . . The problem no longer takes up all my inner space; it is surrounded by a context of perception and awareness . . . .
The approach I use—focusing your attention on yourself when you’re visualizing a worrisome scenario—produces this type of effect. When you run an anxiety-provoking mental movie, but stay conscious of your own part in it, you become aware of your ability to choose how to react to events in your life. With this awareness, the problems that arise in your life no longer seem so threatening and beyond your control. When you know that whatever situation confronts you, you can decide to face it with peace and composure, your worries start to dissolve.