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.
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.