Think of your mind as a vast network of thousands of TV channels. Your thoughts correspond to these channels—except you don’t have a remote control to change them. While the channels do change, you’re not in control. Something else appears to change the channels. We feel it’s our external circumstances such as events that bring happiness: a marriage, birth of a child, a promotion at work, financial gain; or, it could be sadness as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a breakup. Or, maybe it’s triggered by other emotions such as anger and envy. We are unaware of what causes the channels to change. In fact, we are not aware that the channels are even changing. We just go along and react to events.
We experience stress and anxiety as if our mental TV channels were stuck—stuck on a horror channel that seemingly knows what scares us and keeps running the same film repeatedly. The problem is that we don’t know how to change the channel. Let’s say we’re in a recession, and you hear from a coworker that cuts are coming down in your department. Now your mind becomes stuck on that channel, one that keeps showing foreboding images of your imminent demise. Your boss rushes past you in the morning without saying hello—“Ah, that must mean he doesn’t value me, and I’ll be cut.” An important meeting gets scheduled for the following Thursday. “Oh, that’s when they plan to fire me. They better give me a severance. I mean, I’ve worked for this company for 15 years. How could they? Maybe I’ll consult a lawyer. But how much will that cost?” The thoughts are endless. But while you can’t change the channel, it will eventually change on its own. You go to the meeting the following Thursday. Your boss tells you and your coworkers that he’s leaving. He’s been let go, but the rest of those in the department keep their jobs. Relief. The channel changes. Now you’re on a different channel. Perhaps, if you pay attention, you can become aware of the contents of the new channel.
So what do you do?
The first step is to recognize that your mind’s mental tracks are indeed like TV channels and that they can be changed. You don’t yet know how to do that, but you can learn. Changing your mental channels is the key to living a life free of stress and anxiety. Your channels were forged by years of mental conditioning. Again, imagine that vast snowfield with footprints that run along in one direction. That’s the conditioned mind. It will follow the same footprints. To change the channel, you will have to learn to create new footprints in the snow. In the section called long-term solutions, we will explore how to do that.
Quick Short-Term Relief
Meanwhile, it would help if you had some short-term relief. The mind is very powerful and keeps pulling you back into the horror channel. Here we are going to look at some immediate ways of changing that channel.
Taking deep diaphragmatic breaths:
Sit in a chair or on a cushion with a straight back. Relax your shoulders, neck, eyes, and throat. Exhale deeply, counting slowly to ten. Now inhale slowly and deeply but only through your stomach cavity, not into your chest. Feel your stomach rising with the inhale. Now exhale again, counting to 10. Practice this a few times to make sure you get the hang of it. Let’s say three times.
Perhaps your mind will resist this exercise. It is stuck on the horror channel and keeps taking you back to that nightmare. Your mind may even whisper to you, “This is ridiculous. I don’t see how it can help. I have so many problems to think about and solve.” It’s okay if your mind does that. Stick with the deep breathing. Keep on doing it. After three breaths, try another three. You’ll see that each time you do it, it gets easier. And it will bring some relief. Don’t expect a one hundred percent. If you get 20% relief, that’s already quite good.
Become aware that you can change the channel
After you’ve done the breathing, become aware of your surroundings. Notice where you are. Are you in physical danger right now? Do you lack food, water, or shelter? Mostly, I would think not. Note that reality. Now look at what’s going on in your mind. Say to yourself:
“I’m stuck in this horror channel, but I can change it.”
And now say out loud:
“Change the channel, change the channel.”
Think of one thing that is going well in your life. For example, are you healthy?
Just one thing.
Now can you think of one other good thing?
These other things are different channels you can tap. I know your mind keeps pulling you back to the horror channel, but you can keep reminding yourself to change that channel. Say out loud again:
“Change the channel, change the channel.”
This technique should bring some immediate relief. Again, not 100%, but some.
The diving response
Fill a sink or bowl with cold water and immerse your face into it. Keep your face immersed for a few minutes, only turning it to take a breath. This mimics the diving response, which can calm anxiety almost immediately. You can read about the science behind this technique here:
Humming may also provide some immediate relief to anxiety. Sit in a chair with a straight back and hum, making sure you hear that “mmmm” sound passing through your jaw. Humming stimulates the Vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the body and passes through your throat area. Stimulating this nerve has a calming effect on anxiety.
My hope for these pages is to be a modern-day Academy, much like Plato’s Academy, in order to reduce stress and anxiety in our individual lives and perhaps even help mankind reverse course from its current ego-driven and lethal trajectory.
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