Part 3: Investigate Your Thinking
In Part 1 of this series, you learned how to manage the foundation of your wellbeing, your Body Budget. Part 2 taught you the important skill of “down regulation,” which is how to bring yourself from a state of agitation into state of calm through movement and breathing. Once you are in a state of calm, you can address the source of your agitation: your thinking.
Investigating your thinking is the final step in this process because it’s hard, if not impossible, to do effectively when you’re in the midst of experiencing anxiety. Physiologically speaking, when you are in a state of unpleasant high arousal, blood is diverted away from the prefrontal cortex and flows to more primitive areas of the brain, making you good at reacting (Get out of danger, now!) but bad at thoughtful problem-solving (What’s really going on here?).
Not Everything You Think Is True
Experientially, that headline does not feel true. Experientially, there is no space between perception and thought, and so of course we believe our thoughts! But if you have ever had the experience of observing the same event as another person and having a different interpretation of it, you get it.
Investigating your thinking is the way to create space between perception and thought. It will liberate you from the thinking that causes pain.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, the process of investigating painful thoughts will be familiar to you. I write about it so frequently because it is foundational to mental and emotional wellbeing for everyone – for people who regularly experience anxiety and for people who do not.
How to Capture and Investigate Your Thinking
Once you are calm in body, get ready to write! I like to type on a laptop, but maybe you prefer to write longhand in a journal.
1. Do a Brain Dump. The first step in turning off runaway thinking is to write it all down. Write down everything you’re thinking without editing, until it’s all out of your head.
Writing slows down your thinking and collects it. You will be amazed at how few thoughts you actually have – it feels like so many when they’re shut up inside your head!
2. Cross Out What Is Laughable. Now that your thoughts are on paper instead of shouting in your head, you will see that some of them are ridiculous. Laugh at them as you cross them out.
3. Do The Work on the Most Painful Thought. Yes, go right into it. Don’t tiptoe around it, go directly to the worst thought you have written down. Give your brightest energy to the biggest problem.
To do The Work, go to thework.com. There you’ll find complete directions and videos of Byron Katie (its originator) doing The Work with ordinary people. Videos are organized by topic, so you may even find someone with the same thoughts as you.
4. Cross Out Again. Now that you’ve done The Work on the most painful thought, does anything else on your Brain Dump list seem laughable now? If so, cross it out, too.
5. Go to the Next Most Painful Thought. Do The Work on it.
6. Repeat steps 4 & 5 Until You Feel Complete. “Complete” means you feel done: tired, relieved, or (best case) elevated. If you feel tired but not complete, or you just run out of time, set your paper aside and return to it when you are able. When you return to it, you may find some more thoughts have simply dropped away.
Have a Plan
If this sounds like a lot, it is! But so is anxiety. If you are experiencing it for any reason – whether it’s a condition of your life or a visitation prompted by challenging circumstances – it’s uncomfortable and draining. But it isn’t beyond your control. You don’t have to simply endure it. Have a plan instead.
This plan takes a bit of practice to master, but it is fundamentally simple: 1) give your body what it needs every day; 2) when you are agitated, move and breathe your body into a calm state; 3) once your body is calm, examine the thoughts that are at the root of your agitation. I promise, this is a trustworthy investment in your wellbeing. You’re worth it!