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.
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.
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.
And stress, which is the third leg of our uncomfortable stool here, is actually a physical response to a threat real or imagined, and in modern life most of the threats are either perceived or imagined. So somebody’s probably told you the story of the saber tooth tiger and the fight or flight response and so on. You know that this is a response we think was designed by nature, so when you walked out of the cave and you ran into a big predator like a saber tooth tiger, your part of your nervous system fires off and you get a big shot of adrenalin and your heart beats faster, your blood clots faster and your blood pressure goes up and your muscles get superb charged and you’re ready to run or run the fastest two miles you’ve ever run in your life or fight the tiger to death. And then it super charges you, it’s a kind of thing we hear about when the mother moves your cart to save the baby.
The thing is that this response can go off in response to threats that are not predators, that are not it can go off in response to stock market movements, economic changes, thinking about aging, thinking about whether you can meet your responsibilities, all kinds of stuff and all kinds of stuff that is — that unless you know where the off button is on your television or your radio or your computer that you can just literally pump into your brain 24×7 if you stay up all the bad news of every bad thing that has happened around the world to anybody, or if it’s a slow news day what could happen, like the H1N1 flu because it’s not a terribly — doesn’t look like a terribly dangerous flu right now but it could become really dangerous. And that’s what’s got everybody scared and everybody freaked out and standing on what could happen.
And yes, there’s a balance between again being able to predict the future and take measures to prevent things happening that don’t need to happen and freaking out for months about something that probably will never happen. It’s a yin yang kind of relationship.
So stress – the important thing here is that stress is a physical response, it’s not stuff that happens to you. It’s a physical response that your body has to survive a short term stress. And if you survived that short-term stress like fight like the saber tooth tiger, you’d either kill it or you run away from it and run as fast as you can climb the highest tree that you can, you burn up all the stress chemicals and when the tiger goes away you kind of limp back to the cave and the read a big sigh of relief and tell everybody about how you killed the tiger or ran away from the tiger and your body rested and compensated and recharged itself and replaced all the chemicals that it used during that intense twenty to thirty minute fight. Or else the tiger has eaten you and you don’t have any more stress.
But one way or another it’s all over in about twenty or thirty minutes. So there is none in this like odd years of stress that go on if you’re a good warrior where you wake up in the morning and the first thing in your mind is Oh, my God, what’s going to happen with this and we’re going to be able to do this – so on and so forth and of course the really good warriors are not only during the daytime but you are up at night too because you can’t sleep. And so that takes your resilience away and it becomes a real negative vicious cycle.
So to review, worry is a type of repetitive circular thinking; anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling or fear of dread; stress is a physical response that prepares you to meet challenges. And so it’s interesting to look at — this is a sort of a somewhat dated model of the brain. It’s called the triune brain, but it’s good enough for government work. We can work with this model. There is what’s called the cortical brain or the neocortex, the big gray matter wrinkled big brain that we’re so proud of that allows us to speak and add, and calculate and reason and so and so forth and imagine and do all these things that again as far as we know no other creature on earth does. And that is really the most adaptive thing that’s helped us survive and dominate.
Lower down limbic system, midbrain, the basic brain, we call it the reptilian brain, that’s the brain we share with lizards and reptiles, amphibians. That’s the oldest part of the brain. That part of the brain basically concerns with survival, it basically sorts things into two or three categories. Can I eat this? Can it eat me? That’s basically what it’s concerned with. It sorts down all the information that you receive into those three things and it acts like that. It acts reflexively and instantaneously just like if you come across a lizard on the path, you make a move towards it, it’s gone like that. It doesn’t go inside, it doesn’t do a Woody Allen thing, well should I move, should I not move or would it be better for me – is it dangerous, is it not dangerous, how dangerous is it? It doesn’t do any and it’s just gone. There is any indication that there’s a threat it sets off this stress response and it’s gone.
The thing is this developed evolutionarily from the bottom up. This part of the brain developed first and then as animals developed, the limbic system pretty much developed in mammals and other in warm furry creatures who characteristically have social relationships and for mammals, for most mammals, not all mammals, social relationships like prides of lions and packs of wolves and families of people and things like that have adapted value. We do better when we’re connected to groups. We have more strength, that we have more problem-solving ability. We have emotional support. We are social creatures and our social positions mean a lot to us and all that emotional processing happens mostly in this limbic system and then on top of it the big smart intellectual brain, every layer added new possibilities and new complexity to our ability to understand our world and to navigate our world.
And part of the problem when we look at this whole issue is that the new guy is very entranced with himself. The thinking brain thinks that nothing was important before you came along and I say he kind of deliberately, could be she too, but it’s not that there aren’t tremendously bright and intellectual women but it’s kind of thinking analysis, logic, that kind of thinking on a yin yang scale we typically characterized as a kind of masculine thinking not that it doesn’t belong to women to where’s the feeling, the intuitive tends to be a more kind of receptive softer, has its own logic but it’s not the same as the logic of mathematics and science.
So this brain is very good at especially part of the brain, the part that’s suited for verbal and mathematical skills which typically is in the left hemisphere of the brain, and there’s some variation but that typically is in the left brain, which is called the dominant hemisphere – speech capability, mathematical capability and so on. Whereas in the right side of the brain in the same area lie areas of the brain that have to do with the body image, with emotional recognition of facial expressions, and tone of voice and those kinds of skills. So they each have their place. I mean logical skills have to do with building buildings like this, in building MRIs and doing the kind of incredible science that goes on in the university setting like UCSF and looking through electron microscopes and doing chemical analyses and these are tremendous feats. Don’t misunderstand me.
They’re completely useless in a relationship. It doesn’t matter how many Noble prizes you have, you may not be able to maintain a marriage. Would be if that’s the only kind of intelligence you have and then you may not be able to maintain good relationships with people, whereas somebody who emotionally and in terms of social networking and understanding and compassion and empathy, we have a different kind of intelligence as well as an intellectual kind of intelligent.
So my point is that these are different kinds of intelligences that are useful in different situations. What has happened since the advent of the age of reason and the advent of discovering the immense power of our intellectual capabilities I think has been a devaluing and ignoring of the earlier kind of intelligence that has to do with our relations with each other and with other living things and with our environment and I think that a lot of the crisis we are seeing now is we’re trying to come back to that and on those relationships while still maintaining our ability to be technically creative and help solve those problems that way.
I think that these have been around a lot longer. This guy’s really fascinated with himself and sometimes thinks you know he’s only game in town. So the reason we used to say when we’re talking about left and right hemisphere and I don’t want to go into too deeply tonight but the reason that the left hemispheres is called the dominant hemisphere – it does dominate but the main reason that it’s called the dominant hemisphere is that it’s the one that name things. It’s the verbal hemisphere, it’s the one that gives people things.
And we have valued that, think about your education, how many hours of emotional education did you get? How many hours of education in using your imagination did you get or your intuition? So your education and I’m not saying that it was hopefully, at least when I went to school it was reading, writing, arithmetic. It was those left brain analytic logical skills, tremendously, tremendously useful but not all of us. And there’s other kind of intelligence I think we need a lot more education experience with it, learn how to communicate with it and that’s why in a little while I am going to talk about imagery which is its coding language, in a sense of this more emotional and intuitive brain.
So here’s kind of a picture of our real brain cut in half this way and I don’t know how well you can see this but there’s the wrinkled cortex, neocortex that goes all the way around and then in the center, this area here more or less is the limbic or emotional brain. And you can see that there’s — and then this would be the reptilian reflexive survival brain, and you can see there’s lots of connections between the two so that this brain could send messages into this brain and create an emotional reaction, which would send messages down to this part of the brain and send it out to the body and vice versa. Like for this guy.
So this guy is having – he’s not having a good day. He’s having a rage reaction and without going through all of these things just — if you want to study this you can but something didn’t match up with his expectations, that’s where most anger comes from. He had an expectation; something didn’t come up to it. It sent some kind of a message of a danger or a threat to this emotional brain. It signaled his lower brain to get ready for a fight and this thing sends out through all the cranial nerves and spinal cord and so on – messages to every organ in his body and your physiology changes very dramatically. When you’re angry, when you’re frightened, when you are sad, when you’re happy, when you are calm, you are physiologically different. Okay, so there’s plenty of connections and this is basically just to show – yes, there’s a real wiring diagram and a real chemical messaging system.
So anxiety, stress and worry are interactive. They are bi-directional. If you have a tendency to be anxious that emotional brain is going to be pumping out more messages of lookout, lookout….it may not know what it’s looking out for but it’s going to be more vigilant, it’s going to raise the – it’s going to send more messages to the cortex to be on guard for problems and then the cortex is going to be able to imagine all the problems that there could be out there. And it’s going to send messages back and they can get into a real kind of a reverberating circuit.
All these parts of the brain are chemically sensitive and of course, in medicine typically we try to chemically manipulate these things if somebody’s got a real anxiety disorder. We’re not talking about anxiety disorders where the anxiety level is just cranked up high in spite of the thinking here. But we try to manipulate that with medications. Those of us who have studied nutritional medicine know that there are naturally occurring molecules, molecules that are foods that can be as nutraceuticals to modify how active or up-regulated the nervous system is or down-regulated, so we try to do it through more natural molecules.
But the other thing to know about this is that they are also thought sensitive. That thoughts become chemicals at a certain level and those chemicals stimulate the physical mechanisms that underlie our reaction. So that’s going to be our focus tonight is about thinking. For any of you who have any doubts that the mind and body are really connected and create physiology — just a real quick, this is biofeedback data. And to make it simple, this muscle tension is a electrical response in the skin. This is fingertip temperature, which is a sign of either stress or relaxation. This nice even white line here is respiration. So this guy is sitting in a biofeedback therapists office with a bunch of sensors hooked up to his muscles and his fingertips to measure the way that his circulation response to stress, and he’s got a belt around his chest, and he’s just breathing nice and normally, even he’s just sitting there relaxing, there’s not much going on. So you won’t be able to read all this stuff, just watch what happens here.
So he’s a 8guy – he’s an actual patient who has a phobia about driving over bridges and he lives here. Bad combination. So he goes to the biofeedback therapist. Here he’s just sitting there relaxing. Then the biofeedback therapist asks him just to think about – just imagine approaching the Golden Gate bridge. And all of this goes in the same direction, it’s an immediate fight or flight response — just goes off and it’s from imagining driving across the bridge. You can see at best here what happens he’s breathing, it just goes to pot, it’s just very shallow, very irregular, stops breathing into this abdomen. His skin temperature actually — this is reversed, it should go decrease as muscle tension goes up, he’s physiologically ready to defend his life by imagining going to the bridge.
Now if he can learn to get his breathing under control again and his therapist can guide him to think about some other things that are more relaxing, they typically break it down – just think about coming down the stairs and seeing your car keys, person has developed a phobia; that would be enough to stimulate a huge reaction. Now if the person then can learn to breathe more deeply and to induce a relaxation response which most people can, while he’s imagining that go back to the calm physiology, by the time he gets to the place where he can actually imagine driving across the bridge and staying calm, he will be able to go across that bridge. That could take months to get to. There’s a lot of practice in here but it’s a good example a mind-body connection and how much we respond to just thinking about things.
How many have heard the term neural plasticity? So it doesn’t mean your brain is made of plastic. It means that your brain is changeable and there has been a lot of literature lately about how to changeable the adult human brain is. Up until very recently, the dictum was we have an adult brain, that’s it. These cells die off but that’s about it. And you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and all that kind of stuff. And we know now — how many of you have read this book by Norman Doidge, “The Brain That Changes Itself”. It’s an astounding book on brain science. An example — there are researchers now that have developed techniques taking people who’ve been blind since birth, hooking up a little video camera to an electric device that kind of draws a picture on their back by poking kind of a thing that puts multiple little pokes and gives them a picture on their back. And they start to see. They can see so that they can walk around. Now they have a little video camera and the glass goes to a little wafer on the tongue that sends out little electrical signals and they are able to see, probably not like most of us who are able to see naturally normally but they are able to see they can walk around the room and not bump into objects and so on and so forth.
And what happens over time, what they found was in these people that watching a device called the functional MRI, which can show us what parts of the brain are active while people are thinking that it was a part of the brain, the occipital cortex that processes visual information that took all of this data from their back or their tongue and started putting pictures together. So the brain is taking this data and putting pictures together because that’s what it does. Normally it gets the input from your eye but if we can get at the information some other way, it can create new pathways that create these abilities and that’s astounding.
So part of Jeffrey Schwartz at UCLA, his research has been with people with obsessive compulsive disorder, which has been a traditionally a very, very difficult condition to treat and finding that by very structured repetitive exercises, which fortunately obsessive-compulsive people are very good at, by focusing their mind in a certain way that they literally can change not only their behavioral patterns but that their brains change after a decent period. We’re talking about months of practice. So that you can actually laying new hard wiring down as well as changing your mind. You can change your mind in a nanosecond but it seems to take weeks and months to change your brain.
But when you change your brain, now you’ve got a new default position installed. And you don’t have to be the same way that you were before. Louann Brizendine who’s a professor of psychiatry here at UCSF wrote this book. Wonder how many of you read this book “The Female Brain”. If you never read another book in your life and if you’re either male or female, you should read this book. This is an astounding book – a really astounding book about the brain and how it’s organized and what different capabilities there are — both genders have similar capabilities but it’s a bit of a digressive but it was tremendously useful to me to learn from this book. All fetuses as they’re growing in the womb are female or are male at the beginning. And at eight weeks, the fetus with the Y chromosome gets a wash of testosterone.
And do you know what that testosterone does to the brain? You’re going to love this. It explains so much. It kills 80% of the neurons in the male brain that process emotional communication. This is apparently brain science. And when they get it again when they’re fourteen and fifteen, I don’t know how many of you remember in 14 or 15 or if you have a fourteen or fifteen-year-old son who sits at the table like this and looks like a [creatin] and spends all of his time in his room and is barely humane and he was a brilliant loving little kid you know. He’s got testosterone poisoning which seriously is again killing neurons in his brain that have to do with emotional communication and increasing the parts of his brain that have to do with sexuality and aggressiveness.
While the female’s brain is still maintaining this big part about four to five times as much brain area devoted to emotional communication to talking about sensing emotional nuances, which is why in general the ladies are so much better at it than we are and you like to talk to each other about all that stuff; you like to talk to us about it. You don’t understand why we don’t understand. Okay. This would be like — and this is no offense — but this would be like my dog who has 20,000 times the smell neurons in his nose than I do. This would be like my dog asking me why don’t you smell that Jake was here earlier and sniff in his book. Why don’t you — you know I’m living in a world of smell; smell is all around us. It’s a world of smell to the dog. I don’t smell any of it. I don’t hear the high-pitched sounds because his brain is tuned differently. So this has saved my marriage.
The brain changes throughout life and here is the basis of my interest in thinking about how we think, thinking about how we worry, that if the blind can learn to see, then the anxious should be able to learn to relax. I would think it’s much easier to learn to relax than it is to see when you’ve never seen before. I may be wrong but this is kind of at the center of it. If our brain is capable of that kind of learning, then what do we need to do in order to teach it and this is a great term that comes from Jeffrey Schwartz at UCLA “self-directed neural plasticity” which is fascinating because you’re using your own mind to change your own brain. Really an interesting concept. It’s one of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons that has to do with this. This is the ultimate self-help technique. And the guys here are reading these books like “do it by instinct” and “dare to be nocturnal”,” predator prey relationships” and the best one of course is “how to avoid natural selection”, which is horrible. So this is ultimately our greater self-care tool.
Good Worry & Bad Worry
So let’s talk about how we can think about this and this is how I am thinking about it now. I’m thinking that there is good worry and bad worry. And by that I mean good worry is functional worry; it’s worry that’s trying to solve a problem and that has some potential to solve a problem. And if we separate our worries into good worries and bad or futile worries, we can treat each one of them in a different manner. We can use our brain in a different way. So good worry is I’m worried about this project; I’m worried about where to go to school and I am worried about whether I am going to be able to pay for my kids’ education – real stuff to worry about. It’s not that there is any lack of real stuff to worry about. If you ask yourself — is it likely that I could actually do something about this that you would say either yes or maybe, as opposed to when you actually write out the stuff you’re worrying about a lot of times you will find out – you know you look at stuff and you say well, I can’t do much about that –
So good worry anticipates and solve problems; bad worry – circular, habitual, magical doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t lead to solutions scares you. In a sense it starts to become a type of auto suggestion right because you’re thinking about this thing all the time, you’re scaring yourself. You’re sending out those fear pathways and that makes it harder to use your brain when you’re feeling that way.
And so how many of you are familiar with this serenity prayer? The twelve-step program adopted the serenity prayer. Serenity prayer goes back probably as far as Roman times and then in modern times was attributed to a theologian in World War II. But the twelve-step programs have adopted it and it’s a brilliant prayer of thought. The serenity prayer goes God or whatever grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change and the wisdom to know the difference. So if we use — the serenity prayer is kind of the skeleton of our worrying well practice. We want to think about separating things we’re worrying about into things you can change, things you probably can’t change and then if there are some that are left over that you’re not sure of where you need the wisdom to know the difference, I’m going to talk to you at least about the ways that you can use imagery to help with all three of those things.
So the first question is if you’re not sure about something and you need more wisdom, how do you get more wisdom besides living another thirty or forty years? So there’s ways, ordinary ways to access more wisdom. Talk to people that you think are wise. If you have wise friends, if you have wise teachers, see if they will talk to you and you can share your problem, listen to them, consider what they say; that’s one good source of wisdom. This stands for what would Jesus, Buddha, the Dalai Lama or Yoda do? If you don’t have access to a wise friend or a teacher, this is a type of imagery technique. Think about what would somebody that you imagine is genuinely wise, what would they say in that situation? Remember Hillary Clinton got all kinds of flak from people when she was the first lady because she said she was in a circumstance where she wasn’t sure what to do and she thought a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt and what Eleanor Roosevelt would have done in that situation and she’s conjuring the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was imagining what a wise ethical role model would do in that situation. It’s a perfectly natural and very intelligent thing to do. What would somebody with class and wisdom and caring and morals would do in this situation?
And if you took at another step and you do it as a guided imagery where you actually relax, you go into a meditative or just a relaxed state and you kind of daydream that you were walking in the garden with Eleanor Roosevelt and you told her what was going on and you imagined that she spoke back to you. That’s not spooky. As long as you know that it’s not really Eleanor Roosevelt and — or if it is that she is – that you’re not identifying with her you’re not the person in the crazy house who thinks that they’re Jesus. But you could imagine what Jesus would say, what Jesus would do, if Jesus is important and meaningful to you, or what the Dalai Lama would do and what your wise grandmother would do, or what your wise grandma would do if you had a wise grandmother. So you start accessing what would it be like if I were to approach this from a wise place and you take the time to quiet down and take the time to get deeper inside. And that’s what we do it with an inner wisdom imagery or inner advisor in a guide, inner ally, whatever you can have your higher power, guardian angel, people have called this by different names throughout history. And some people feel like well you are calling on spirit and other people feel like it’s just a way to get to the part of my brain that it has this wisdom, because there is a part of all of us that has a lot of wisdom. You know when it comes out it comes out when your friends in trouble, your friend comes to you for advice because they can’t figure it out.
And have you ever noticed how easy it is to give advice to your friends? Good advice usually. And if it’s a serious thing, you take time to think about it. You know you don’t just give him a glib answer. You take some time and you think about it, you go down as deep as you can inside yourself and you give them that wise advice. The thing is it’s probably easier for you to get to your wisdom than your friend if your friend is really frightened, because when we are frightened, when we’re anxious, when we’re worried, there’s a psychological phenomenon called regression. We tend to regress, we tend to feel like we’re too little or too weak, we don’t have the resources, we don’t know what to do. We were wishing that somebody bigger wiser stronger were there to tell us what to do, and we feel more child-like and that blocks our access to our own wisdom. And that’s why taking the time to actually do a relaxation practice, relax your body, shift your mind, imagine that you go to a place that’s beautiful and peaceful and safe, so you get out of that fearful loop, you imagine or you invite an image of someone or something that’s wise and loving and that cares about you, whether it’s someone or something you’ve ever met or something you just make up. You just imagine, and you imagine what it would tell you or show you or do with you, and it’s quite remarkable what can come from a medication like this.
And so it’s easier to do that for your friend because as much as you love your friend you’re probably not going to be is freaked out as they are if it’s a serious situation. So we see this all the time, you know the most common place that I see this in my practice is in people who’ve just been newly diagnosed with cancer and they’re just shocked and freaked out as most people are. Andin the meantime they are visiting all these different doctors and oncologists and trying to become an oncologist in like two weeks and learn the whole field of oncology and figure out their best option while emotionally they are feeling like a three year old. And it’s very difficult for them to make good decisions that way. These kinds of techniques if you start early and help them connect to a deeper level and now that scared child can really make a difference in terms of wise decision making.
So sometimes they get your inner advisor to say something like this. The secret of living without frustration and worry is to avoid becoming personally involved in your own life. This is definitely a good treatment for worry, but usually and that’s not bad advice. Here is how I think that this thing kind of works. So if we go through this process of thinking about the worries, I actually have people in class write them down and then go through and separate them and it sounds mechanical just using our ordinary intelligence — separate them into three columns: things you think you could change if you wanted to; things you think you couldn’t change if you wanted to; and things that you’re not sure about. And people rarely do this and so we carry it around in our head. Just writing it down is often very helpful for people in sorting it out. And then where we want to get to is down here either if it’s something you can’t change, basically what you want to do is get to a place where you either get to a place of some kind of acceptance, some kind of coming to terms. Or you turn it around into an intention or a prayer. So in other words, you’re worrying about something that something’s going to happen but it’s not something that you can’t physically do something about.
It’s interesting to see what happens if you take it and you turn it around and you put it into a positive visualization of what you would rather have happened. And I’m going to skip the whole argument here about whether or not that has a physical effect, don’t like the secret, whether we just make something happen by changing our intention. Sometimes it seems that that we do and sometimes we don’t but what does happen when people — in other words, so some friend gets diagnosed with cancer and you are overcome with the worry because you’re just worried that she’s going to die. That’s typical normal reaction. But you find yourself losing sleep and you’re thinking about it and you’re getting obsessed with it and so on and so forth. And there’s nothing more that you can do, you’re bringing her food and you’re source of support and so on and so forth but you aren’t personally going to be able to cure that cancer. But now you start to say okay, instead of constantly imagining what I don’t want to have happened, I’m going to think about what I would rather have happened. So I’m going to start to imagine that she gets great treatment and that her cancer responds and that she comes through that treatment and she survives it and she comes out of being an even stronger healthier person. That if it was up to me if i was God that’s what would happen. And I don’t know if that’ll make any difference, but that’s where I’m going to put my energy instead of putting my energy over here. And whether it changes the outcome or not way beyond me, but what it does do is that when people start focusing on that image, they become less anxious. You become less anxious because you feel like I’m doing what I can be doing and I’m putting my energy into what I want to see happen.
And there’s a lot of principles of suggestion that are at work there, though there’s a couple analogies I use for people. One is I’m not a skier myself mountain biker, I ski I don’t know how many of you are but you can imagine being a skier. Imagine that you’re up on the top of a very steep, very challenging ski run. What you want to do when you’re up there at the top before you start – before you push off, you want to check it all out, you want to say hey there’s a big rock over here, I don’t want to bump hit that. There’s big trees over here, I don’t want to hit those. Then what you want to do and any skier will tell you that you want to see what the lying is that takes you safely through those things, and once you start skiing and you’re going fast or riding your bike downhill or any other thing that’s like that, what you want to focus on is you want to focus on where you want to go, not on where you don’t want to go, because if you fixate on that rock you will crash into it, because that is how your body and mind is put together, it tends to go where you look.
The other example I use for people is if you want to hit a bull’s eye on a dart board it helps if you look at it. If you look at it you’re not guaranteed to hit it but you’re much more likely to hit it than if you close your eyes and your attention is just over the place and if you keep looking at it, even if you keep missing your whole nervous system is wired to recruit resources and to control your body so that you get closer and closer to it and that you hit it more and more often. So it’s goal setting, it’s focusing your intention on what you want to have happened. Without doing that I was talking to a psychiatrist friend of mine the other day about this when he says, “You know I think you’re talking about intention deficit disorder”, because a lot of this comes down to whether how much control we can have about where we put our attention. So we put our attention in this case — if you’re a prayer — if you’re a religious person and you have a way of praying, then you pray for the outcome that you desire. If you’re not a religious person, if you don’t pray, you visualize or you intend and say it’s up to me — I’m worried that my friend will succumb; I don’t want that to happen. But the way that I’m going to put my energy into her getting better, into imagining that she gets better. And if nothing else it’ll help you it’ll help reduce your anxiety level, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
So the other thing is that on the other side it’s something that you can change there’s a whole couple processes for doing this. One of the questions is sometimes people don’t act on things that they can change because they feel like they don’t have enough creativity, they haven’t been able to solve the problem; they don’t have the guts, the courage to act on it; they don’t have the assertiveness; they don’t have the confidence. So imagery and I’m going to hopefully share with you an imagery that you can experiment with yourself is a fantastic way of both accessing and building these kinds of personal qualities in yourself so that you can be more effective in making changes that you want to and leading to an action that can actually resolve these problems.
Guided Imagery Technique
Imagery is a type of thinking people often say that involves your senses, thoughts that you can see here, smell, feel, daydreams. It’s language; it’s an emotional language. It’s a synthetic gestalt language. It’s the language of the arts, it’s all the visual arts, drama, poetry, painting, even music, dance, images that bring, convey a lot of information but not in the same way that an equation conveys information. But it makes sense, it’s a difference between listening. I think Einstein once said you could break a Beethoven sonata down into wavelengths and frequencies but you’d be missing the point. So there’s that venue of scientific part, there’s that experiential part; we’re after that.
So imagery is a natural way that we think, it’s very closely linked to the emotions. If you think about it as a coding language, it’s a coding language of the emotional intuitive brain. And it’s just that we haven’t had much education in using it. And runaway imagination is probably the primary source of modern stress. It’s not just what’s happening, it’s what you think will happen to you and how it will affect you that sends the signals down into your body. On the other hand, developing a skillful imagination, one that you can use to send messages of calmness, of confidence, creativity; there’s a lot of different ways to use it — your most potent tool for stress relief but you need to learn some skills in order to use it on purpose.
So what the imagery does is if we’re having problem that we can solve in that cortex, the imagery brings the limbic brain into it. It brings the emotional intuitive intelligence to that issue or problem. So it just brings a whole other big area of the brain to bear on whatever the problem is. So it doesn’t take anything away; it adds intelligence to your problem solving. So you can harm your brain with imagery just like you can make it anxious. I could take you through a little imagery just to ask you to imagine the scariest thing you’ve ever been through. Don’t do that right now. If we went through it and what do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell, imagine you there again, you can work a pretty good anxiety.
If I ask you instead to imagine that you go to a place that’s peaceful and beautiful to you and that you just love to be in where you have nothing to do and it’s safe and it’s the right temperature and notice what you see and hear and smell, and immerse yourself in that daydream, your brain will send messages down through the limbic system down into the lizard brain and it will say it looks beautiful, peaceful and safe. It sounds beautiful, peaceful and safe. It smells nice, it’s peaceful here, it’s safe, hit the all clear button and your body will shift into that. So there’s that places where right now do I want to focus my attention, what train of thought do I want to put my attention on. And again few people have ever really been taught this. So we have got – I’ll get to the commercial aspect later but it’s one reason that I’ve devoted as much time as I have to reading books and doing audio CDs and downloads for to teach people the skills. They are very simple skills. Your imagination is your birthright. That’s built into you. Nobody ever really just taught you how to do some fairly simple but potentially profound moves with them that can literally change your life depending on what you do it. It can certainly improve your life.
So I want to share with you a fairly simple imagery that we call evocative imagery. So how many of you have used guided imagery on purpose before? So this is a way to use imagery to help you access particular quality that you might want to have more of, and that could be courage, could be confidence, could be creativity, could be patience, could be humor, could be assertiveness, any quality that you want to think about. And the way that we usually use this and you could do this is to think about a situation that you’ve got going on, that you have had difficulty solving or resolving, and you just feel like you just haven’t been able to resolve it. It seems like something that you could potentially solve or resolve, where you just don’t feel you have enough fill-in the blank to do this. You need a little more again courage, assertiveness, patience, humor whatever it is.
If you can think of one right off the bat, just think about a quality that you would like to experience more of in yourself – joy, calmness, confidence, self-love, whatever floats your boat to some quality you’d like to experience more of, and give it a name, think about what the name of it and you could do a couple of qualities — I wouldn’t do more than – sometimes it’s unclear what you need more of it. I feel like I need more, I don’t know if it’s courage or I need more strength. So you could do them both kind of together, you know what you’re after. To think about a specific quality or a couple qualities that you would just like to feel more of in yourself. And then let yourself be as comfortable as you can be in your seats, you can close your eyes you don’t have to but it’s usually easier to pay attention to your imagination in your inner world if you do. And then just let yourself take a couple of deeper breaths – and lets your breathing get a little deeper into your abdomen and let your out-breath be kind of a letting go kind of a breath, and without forcing anything or straining, just again a deeper breath into your abdomen, into your belly, letting the out-breath to be a letting go kind of a breath, just inviting your body to begin to soften or relax, and just another time matures you welcome the breath into your body, just notice that you’re literally bringing fresh energy and oxygen into your body. You can invite it to circulate and flow around your body in the bloodstream to every cell in your body, brings fresh energy.
And as you let the breath out, if you like just let it be an invitation to your body, your mind, even your spirit to just let go of any tension or discomfort you don’t have to hold right now. And you don’t even have to worry about whether you know what you need to hold, or what you can let go of, just invite the body to soften the mind to begin to quiet. And invite your body to continue to soften and relax perhaps to become little more spacious. Without worrying about how it does that. Feel free to shift or move to be even more comfortable, and if you haven’t already let yourself go inside to a place that’s very beautiful to you, that yourselves daydream yourself to a place that’s very beautiful, peaceful, safe, and there might be a place that you’ve actually been in your life either in your outer life or even in your inner life, or it might be a place that just comes to mind right now, an imaginary place or some combination. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a place that’s beautiful to you and peaceful and safe. And if more than one place comes to mind, just pick whichever one attracts you the most right now and imagine in your own way that you’re actually there and take a few moments to just look around and notice what you imagine seeing in this beautiful, peaceful place.
Notice the colors and the shapes and things that are there. And don’t worry about whether it’s very vivid and clear like a usual eyesight or whether it’s kind of vague or it comes and goes but just notice what you imagine is there in this peaceful, beautiful place, safe place. And notice what you imagine hearing in that place or if it is very quiet, notice any sounds you imagine hearing. Notice if there’s an aroma or fragrance or a quality of the air. And notice what time of day or night it seems to be, and I wonder if you can tell what season of the year it is. Just notice — find a spot in that place where you feel most comfortable entities, and just trusting your instincts just like a dog or cat will circle around and find the most comfortable place to be and let yourself get comfortable there.
And then think about a quality that you’d like to feel more of. The name of a quality or particular quality, feeling state that you’d like to feel more of and then let yourself go back in your memory to some time when you experienced yourself having that quality in yourself. Just let your memory go back to some time when you felt that quality in yourself and some of you may not have a memory of having that quality. So let yourself go to some time when you witnessed somebody else expressing that quality or embodying that quality. That could be a real person or a fictional person or a historical person. And if you found a time when you yourself had this quality, imagine that you are there again now and notice what you see, what you hear, what you feel, as you’re feeling that particular quality within you. And if you’re imagining somebody else embodying that quality, imagine that you bring them inside you so that you can feel what it feels like to have that quality inside you.
And then notice where you feel that quality most strongly in your body. You might want to just gently scan through your body with your attention from head to toe and back up as if your attention were a SONAR beam or a radar beam and just see where do you feel that particular quality most strongly in your body, the strongest in your feet or your legs, your pelvis, abdomen, chest, your neck and shoulders, arms and hands, your face. Just notice wherever it seems to be the strongest and let it grow a little bit larger. Imagine that you can just allow it to grow a little bit larger and stronger, just a little bit and notice how it feels to feel that quality in yourself and notice what your posture wants to be like as you feel that quality more strongly in yourself and if you’re comfortable with it, imagine that you turn up the volume on that quality like you had a control like a volume control on a radio or television and you turn it up so that it radiates out from wherever it’s center in all directions, radiates out and fills your body with that particular quality.
And as you feel that in your face notice how your face feels. And as you feel that quality notice what imagine your voice would be like if you were in touch with that quality when you spoke. And if you like the feeling of this quality go ahead and turn it up even more so that it overflows the space of your body and fills the space around your body in every direction. And imagine that it radiates inside your body and touches every cell in your body with that quality from the deepest part of your bone marrow to your bones, to your connective tissues, your muscles, the organs in your pelvis, your abdomen, in your chest, especially your brain, spinal cord in your nervous system, as if every cell of your body were touched by a ray of this quality, as if you’re a sponge and you’re bathing in this quality, could soak up as much as you like.
If you like you can turn it up even stronger and bigger, fill the space around your body for several feet in every direction, you can experiment with that. Never turn it up so strongly that you’re uncomfortable but if you like the way it feels imagine you can turn it up that there’s an abundant source of this quality and you can turn it up so that you fill the space around your body for twelve, fifteen, twenty feet around, fill the room with it, fill the bay area with it, fill the world with it, keep experimenting. And then let yourself turn the volume to whatever’s most comfortable for you right now, no matter how strong and weak how big or small that is, just give yourself permission to let it be like listening to music when you’re all by yourself. Whatever volume is most comfortable for you right now is exactly the right volume. And just let yourself rest in that for a few more minutes and just take a moment before you bring your awareness back into the room, just take a moment to review what’s happened in this brief imagery experience. What quality you are looking to experience more of whether you have or not, what it was like.
And if there’s anything in particular that you want to bring back from this experience and remember when you come back to the outer world, and before you come back to the outer world, take a moment if there’s a particular situation that you wanted more of this quality in order to address, imagine addressing that situation while being in touch with this quality. And just notice whatever you notice. Notice whether it seems the same or different in any way. Whether bringing more of this quality into the situation seems to change anything about it or your relationship to it. And before you come back to the outer world, just remember that you can recall this quality, access it, feel it, build it more strongly in yourself anytime you like just by going through this process again.
And so when you’re ready, just let the images go back to wherever they came from and become aware of the room that were in together and just gently start to bring your awareness from your inner world back out to the outer world us in this room here together and you feel like just very gently stretch your body and feel your fingers and toes and everything in between, I want to give you just a few minutes to write or draw anything that you want to remember about this experience – this is just for you. I am going to give you about three or four minutes just to write or draw anything and I would recommend that you do it whatever happened even if nothing happened. Just take three or four minutes and write about the experience, especially about anything that you want to remember that you thought was important or that you thought was interesting about this experience.