Following is the full transcript of psychotherapist and marriage counselor Mel Schwartz’s TEDx Talk: Overcome Anxiety in 7 Minutes at TEDxBeaconStreet conference. This event occurred on November 18, 2017. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.
Listen to the MP3 audio/ read the transcript:
Mel Schwartz – Psychotherapist & Marriage Counselor
In any given year, 40 million Americans will suffer from debilitating anxiety.
Over the course of your lifetime, there’s a one out of four chance that you will have an anxiety disorder. That is such a staggering rate.
It suggests that we’ve entered into a new realm. We’ve acclimated to a new norm, one of mass disquiet. Anxiety exists in epidemic proportions in our culture.
If 40 million people fell mysteriously ill on a physical level, the Center for Disease Control would be searching for the cause and looking to find the solution.
As a practicing psychotherapist, it’s never made sense to me that the best we can do is try to manage this disorder, typically through medication. So I’ve been searching to understand why we struggle in this way.
Now, I’m not talking about normal levels of stress, which are typical in our lives. I feel some stress standing here right now. That’s the stress of engagement, of being productive and generative, and moving forward.
But when stress turns into distress, it impedes, it blocks our ability to live our lives well, with joy, to be present in our relationships.
So I’ve been searching to understand why we are entrenched in this epidemic of anxiety.
Here’s what I’ve learned: I find that primarily the cause of such anxiety is due to our relationship with our thoughts.
You see, when our thoughts are constantly seeking certainty, wanting to know the future in advance, we get anxious, we get fearful. We can’t know that future in advance; it’s unknowable.
But we still continue to search for it. It sets up the struggle to actually engage in the flow of life. Rather than experiencing life, we’re trying to ward off the uncertain. This induces fear in our lives.
Ask yourselves, think to yourself, what causes stress, fear and anxiety in my life? Does it have something to do with my need to know the future?
A number of years ago, I was working with a woman who came to see me around her relationship, her marriage and her anxiety disorder.
She shared with me that she was unhappily married in a loveless marriage. Her husband had refused marriage counseling, and she said they were very disconnected and conflicted. They were both financially independent, and they had no children.
So I asked her, “Why do you continue to stay married?”
She shared that it was around her uncertainty about “Who would I be if I got divorced? What would my life be like if I were not married?”
I was incredulous at first because the known in her life was setting up such despair, such anguish, such depression and such anxiety.
But there it was, her need to know who she would be in the future precluded her from moving forward and kept her stagnating in life and stuck in the way she was.
The need to know “Who would I be?” kept her mired in an unhappy, if not miserable, relationship. I see this phenomenon occurring on so many levels in our lives.
So how did we get to be this way? How did we get stuck requiring certainty?
After all, we seek uncertainty when we go to sports events, movies, read books, but in our personal lives, we try to thwart and mock uncertainty.
I tracked the cause back to the great 17th century scientist Sir Isaac Newton. Newton proposed that if we had enough information, today what we might call data, that we might reasonably predict a future event. This became known as determinism, but we took it to an extreme.
It led us to slicing and dicing our options, getting us stuck in our lives. It created a fear, a fear of making the wrong move. It’s almost as though we’re living our lives as though we’re playing a chess match: sitting back and deliberating but afraid of making the wrong move.
If you have problems making decisions, if you get stuck in moving forward in your life, you probably have an issue around your fear of uncertainty.
Here’s the good news: It turns out we’ve been living from the wrong game plan. Over the last 100 years, remarkable discoveries from the field of quantum physics have revealed that the universe, reality, is nothing like what we imagined it to be. It’s not Newton’s reality.
Reality is not fixed, deterministic or predictable. Nothing is inert. It is a flowing, moving, bubbling sea of possibilities, infinite potentiality. And we too, can jump into that game plan and live our lives that way, once we can reframe our relationship with uncertainty.
Think about it. Embracing uncertainty allows you to start to navigate and craft your own life decisions. I used this concept with that woman who was stuck in that troubled marriage.
I asked her to close her eyes and imagine that she was standing by the bank of a river. I explained to her that the river, metaphorically, was going to resemble the flow of her life, the current of life, particularly the middle of the river where the current would get strong.
She closed her eyes, and I let a few seconds pass, and then I asked her what she saw. She said to me she sees herself in the middle of the river where the current is strong, but there’s a large rock – let’s call it a boulder – and she’s grabbed ahold of that boulder.
And I asked her why: “Why are you holding onto the boulder?”
She said, “Well, the river is bending to the right up ahead, and I need to know where it’s going to take me.”
Let’s presume that that’s going to be her life as a divorced or single woman. She needed to know.
I explained to her she needed to let go of that boulder and enter into the flow of life. And that once she did, she’d be free to navigate along the way, but she had to let go of that boulder.
How do we accomplish this? How do we have this shift of mind to allow us to make these changes in our lives?
First, we have to change our relationship with uncertainty. Typically what we fear, we resist. We go like this, we push it away. And when we do that, it emboldens it; it makes it greater. It makes us more anxious.
Paradoxically, what we need to do is invite what we fear in. When you invite it in – in this case, invite uncertainty in – the fear starts to dissipate; it starts to retreat.
Think of it this way: If reality is uncertain, and we cling to seeking certainty, we’re going to dysfunction. We need to change our game plan of how we engage life.
Next, think about your relationship with your thoughts. If you still see your thoughts are seeking certainty, you need to notice those thoughts, try to release them.
Essentially, see the thought but don’t become the thought. If you don’t become that thought, you can release it. It’s the moment you have a thought, the thought summons up the accompanying emotion. They work in tandem.
So if you have a thought seeking certainty, you’re going to feel fearful, you’re going to feel anxious.
In the nanosecond between your thoughts, you exist in a state of pure potential. That’s the universal reality.
But if you keep having thoughts that are seeking certainty, garnering fear, you’re never going to transcend anxiety.
The most important relationship you will ever have in your life isn’t with your parents. It isn’t with your children. It’s not with your spouse.
The relationship that’s going to impact you far more than any other relationship you have ever had is with your thoughts. You need to learn to choose them with care. Turn your thoughts into your ally.
When you do that, you can begin to write the script of your own life.
Think of it this way: Uncertainty can be the wind in the sail of your life that generates your ability to move forward and experience your life without fear, without anxiety and with joy and the ability to be present.
Embrace uncertainty; it can be your best friend.