How to Use Your Brain to Relieve Stress and Anxiety by Martin Rossman [Text Only]

Martin L. Rossman, MD, here discusses how to use the power of your brain to reduce stress and anxiety using his guided imagery technique

Introduction – What is worry?

So how many of you have ever worried about anything? Has anybody here ever worried about anything? That’s our topic tonight and of course, everybody worries sometimes and some people worry all the time. And if you’re one of those people who find themselves worried all the time I think that you might get something very useful. I hope that you get something very useful out of tonight’s talk. If you just worry intermittently I hope you get something useful anyhow but you probably don’t need it quite as much.

So I’m calling my topic tonight “Worrying Well”. And I’m still looking for a subtitle but tonight we will call it How to Use Your Brain to Relieve Anxiety and Stress and turn it into more desirable things like calmness and confidence. Worry I think it’s a lot of bad press because we don’t use it very well and so when I call it worrying well, it’s really about what is worry? How do we do it? What’s the purpose of it? Is it possible that worry has a positive function which it does.

Worry basically is an adaptive function. It’s something that allows us to go over and over something in our minds in an attempt to solve a problem or resolve the situation. So I think that that’s the adaptive — you know we humans have been born with faculties in our brain that as far as we know don’t belong to any other creature on earth. And it has allowed us to come from being pretty vulnerable prey animal on the African Savannah to becoming the dominant creature on earth. We don’t have many tools for survival if you look at a human as an animal. We’re pretty vulnerable. We don’t run very fast, we don’t have big teeth, we don’t have big claws. We can swim a little bit but not very well. We can’t fly very well.

So out there without a lot of technology and on the African Savannah we are meat basically. And we’ve got systems built into our system that we inherited and from the development of other pretty animals that lead to things like fight and flight response. But one of the qualities that we’ve developed is or one of the mental abilities and functions is imagination. I could really make a strong case that imagination is one of the key things and maybe the key mental faculty that separates the human from all other forms of life and imagination lets us remember things from the past. It lets us project things into the future and think about how things would be in the future if you did something this way or that way and everything that exists on earth that wasn’t made by God or nature whatever take your pick or some combination of the two, everything else that exists, everything that humankind has created started in somebody’s imagination. That’s where it made its first appearance on earth is somebody’s imagination. Oh, we could do that, could make it round. We could chip these — they noticed that two rocks stripping together makes fire and they figured out a way to do that.

So imagination — you can make a case that outside of God or nature that the human imagination is the most powerful force on earth. And the thing is very few of us have ever really been taught how to use it. Most of our education, especially all the way through to higher education is on using other mental faculties which also have made us very powerful, the ability to analyze, the ability to calculate, the linear logical rational scientific ways of thinking have also contributed to us being powerful, because they allow us to take the things that we imagine and make them real in a certain way but a lot starts in the imagination.

Worry is a function of imagination. If you didn’t have an imagination you wouldn’t be worried. That’s what lobotomies are about. And that’s what certain medications are about. So we used to joke at our Academy for Guided Imagery, you know that if we could find a simple non-toxic way to do a imaginectomy we could resolve everybody’s worry, stress problems — you just wouldn’t be very worried. You wouldn’t do much either. It wouldn’t be creative; but you wouldn’t be worried if we could do that. So I think rather than taking the imagination out what we want to do is learn how to use it better. And so a lot of what I’m going to share with you about worrying well or worrying more effectively has to do with how you use your imagination.

Worry, Stress, Anxiety

So worry and stress have a lot of overlap. And we often use them interchangeably. I’m going to spend a little time to differentiate these things a little bit but they do overlap quite a bit. And then anxiety also overlaps with worry and stress. They’re all a little bit different and they’re very interrelated. They share in a lot of different kinds of ways.

The reason this is important is because our consciousness and our ability to become self-conscious is potentially the greatest tool that we have for improving our lives and it also, if we don’t know how to use it, can be something that can make our life miserable. So I like this actually brilliant – “due to circumstances beyond my control, I am master of my faith and captain of my soul”. So like you are it. If you want to do something about your anxiety or stress the way that you think, the way that you create your life, you are the captain whether you like it or not. So we might as well learn how to use these capacities because there’s really no going back. I think sometimes unconsciously we try to go back with other ways of managing anxiety and stress like drinking too much or taking drugs, or medications or eating too much, all the billions of ways we have of going unconscious and kind of trying to just put our head in the sand and maybe it’ll go away which it frequently does. So it’s not that it’s not a good strategy in the short run but as of total life plan it’s kind of lacking. Okay, won’t take you where you want to go.

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So how are worry, stress and anxiety different?

So worry – this is how I think about it and I can be argued with, I’m not sure that any of this is actually true. I am kind of throwing it out there, I’m reading a book on it. So if I’m wrong please tell me before the book is written but it seems to me that worry is a type of thinking. And our friend here Jack, he says that figments of my imagination are out to get me. That’s kind of the most common use of the imagination is just letting your imagination kind of go to the worrisome scenarios, getting kind of entranced or hypnotized by your worries and letting your imagination scare you because I think in a sense the most common – the most common unconscious use of the imagination is to drive ourselves crazy. So the bar is set pretty low, that’s the good news. We can learn to use it more on purpose and do better than that.

So worries is a type of thinking, it’s a repetitive kind of thinking of sometimes rumination, it’s generally troubled – it often has to do with things that are either in the past or in the future. It’s the opposite of be here now. It’s opposite of present. That doesn’t mean it’s bad and that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a function. But it’s we’re in our brain, we’re thinking about something we’re going over and over and over it. Again I think that’s because the adaptive function of worry, I always assume that something is there is an attempt by nature or by life to solve a problem or to give us an advantage.

So if you think about what could the advantage be of being able to go over a problem over and over and over in my mind? Well I think it’s kind of like if you have a big tangled ball of yarn or thread and you’re trying to untangle it, and you find a place that’s loosing, you pull it for a while and you get some looseness and then you get stuck again, so you turn the ball over and you find another loose place, and you free up some more stuff and you turn it over again and you free up some more stuff and if you keep doing that turning it over and over, looking at it from different angles, finding the loose places, finding more things that are not at together – if you persevere with it more often than not you’re going to get the whole thing untangled. And then go on to the next tangled mess that you find. But you are likely to get that one untangled and I think that’s the function of worry. It lets us — it makes our concerns transportable, so you can think about it at any time and that could be an advantage or a disadvantage. And I think that that depends on whether you’re using your brain or you’re being run by it. Your brain is an incredible organ. Your mind has something to do with it and at least in certain circumstances your mind can learn to use your brain in better ways. That’s what this is about.

So it’s very easy though for this adaptive function of problem solving and turning things over and over to become a habit, or to become repetitive, or to become ruminative and just kind of become its own thing. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that worry can serve kind of a magical function. There’s a magical unconscious function of worry. A couple of them actually, so one is that most things that you worry about never happen. Most things that you worry about never happen, and that’s an old rubric that we’ve all heard and I found myself wondering oh, is that really true? So I’ve been teaching this as a six-week class, it’s worrying well class, I have taught it a few times now, and I’ve asked people at the beginning of the class to list all the things that they find themselves repetitively worrying about, and then sometime later on we’ve just checked in with the first class which was about nine months ago to see how many of those things have happened. And not very many of them have happened. So I don’t know if anybody’s ever studied that really before but you could do it yourself by writing them down and then check in in about six months, or a year.

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Now the interesting thing about that, the way that the brain works is at some unconscious level of the brain, the brain could conclude that the thing didn’t happen because you worried about it. That’s a function of — and there’s an old story about a woman who walks around her house. She’s an old woman, she’s walking around her house every day, mumbling walking around her house, walking around her house. She walks around her house all day long until she’s carved a rock around her house and then goes up to about the middle of her thighs and finally one of their neighbors can’t take it anymore and he goes over and he says you know, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you why you walk around your house all the day – everyday. And she says, “Well, I am keeping it safe from tigers”. And he says, “Well, we are in Indiana, there aren’t any tigers here”. And she says, “See.”

So it’s possible that we get rewarded for worrying because so many of those things don’t happen and at some magical unconscious primitive level of thought, those two things could possibly be connected. The other thing that has been researched is that in sometimes worrying about things distracts us from things that are actually bothering us, so that worrying about little things and do this and so on and so forth and always fussing and always worrying and always having something to fuss up about and to worry about actually distracts us from something that might be deeper and more emotional and actually be harder for us to take. And we know that that’s a function, that’s actually been studied so that worry prevents deeper richer more emotion latent thinking which typically comes in images and comes in the quiet times.

So if there’s a lot of feeling there that’s hard to process or hard to feel, or that’s unprocessed and that we’ve never dealt with, it’s in a sense useful to keep the mind very busy, because if you get quiet, your emotions will come up. And ultimately we think that that’s a good thing. Emotions are natural, they’re healthy, they have a wisdom to them that most of us have not also been educated. But they can be hard to feel. Nobody — very few people have very much trouble feeling joy. Although a lot of times we’re blocked from feeling joy because we are unable or unwilling to feel other emotions. When you start feeling one emotion, you know the others go, hey the door is open and they might want to come up and be felt.

So there are functions of worry again some of them unconscious, magical maybe not in our best interest over time, others adaptive problem solving go over the problem. So it behooves us to kind of learn what we’re doing with the worry and that gives us choices in terms of what we’re doing with the rest. So worries are the thinking function.

Anxiety & Panic Attacks

Whereas anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, it’s usually in the chest or the upper abdomen, not always but it’s most often up in this area or this area. It’s an uncomfortable feeling of fear or apprehension or dread. Dread is it’s that feeling, Oh my God, something bad is going to happen. I know it. Something bad is going to happen. You don’t know — it may be attached to something or it may be free floating and not attached to anything. And anxiety often comes with physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, pain in the chest, sweating, shortness of breath. There’s often a feeling with anxiety, if anxiety is very strong like panic attacks, there’s often a very characteristic feeling that comes with panic attacks and the feeling is impending doom.

People with panic attacks they feel they’re about to die. And again since the symptoms are often in the chest, or in the abdomen we see these things in medicine all the time and you could really make a case for one of the — maybe the primary function of a primary care doctor is saying if there’s anything else but anxiety going on, because anxiety can cause so many symptoms in so many systems of the body and make us afraid.

Since it’s something that’s going to happen, anxiety is a function of a part of the brain, that is the emotional part of the brain, it’s called the limbic system or the emotional brain. So worry belongs to the thinking part of the brain, and there’s a lot of interaction but worry belongs in the thinking part of the brain, the cortex. Anxiety typically comes from the limbic or emotional part of the brain, and I’ll show you what that looks like.

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