Because we are caught in the belief that our inner state is at the mercy of external events, we usually try to manage stress by managing the world, to reduce the circumstances that we think are the cause of our stress. But this overlooks the crucial role that the mind plays in most stress reactions. In most cases it is not the situation itself that causes the stress but the way in which we perceive the situation. If I see the situation as a threat to what I want, to my sense of identity, to my expectations of the way things should be, then I may well make myself upset.
The fact that it is our perception of events that triggers our reactions suggests that we can have far more influence over our responses than we normally realize. By taking responsibility for our own inner processes we can put ourselves back in control, and so have a choice as to whether we upset ourselves over things that happen.
That does not mean that we should sit back and let the world walk over us. There may be many things we can do that will relieve the pressure we are under. What we do not want to do is make ourselves upset and possibly ill in the process. In fact we will probably respond with more insight, clear-headedness, better poise and more effectiveness, if our minds are not hampered by a response more appropriate to our evolutionary past. As you learn to work with yourself in this way, you are learning to deal with the source of all fear - the voice in your head that judges and interprets what it sees - and to leave the ego-mind behind.
The mind is full of loose words, isolated phrases, comments, complaints. An inner chatterbox is perpetually lecturing, justifying, haranguing. There are unending rehearsals, recriminations, fantasy arguments, even puns and quips. Because of the general left-brain dominance, this malady is prevalent - many people tend to intellectualise or "rationalize" to justify their feelings, and to that extent are split off from themselves and to that degree "schizophrenic". Such a person avoids contact with emotions and non-verbal reality. He is isolated from the rest of his personality and is contemptuous of his body. The words flooding from his mind thus wash-out direct contact with the moment.
Since open, direct feeling terrifies most people, they may erect walls of words as a barrier to emotion. Much neurotic behavior is based on the desperate wish to avoid emotional pain. Concentrating on the pain, locating where it effects you, recalling past experiences associated with it, learning from the gut (rather than the head) what you're feeling, will allow the real truth to emerge - the irrational beliefs and evaluations that underlie the bad feelings.
An event is interpreted, judged and labeled in such a way that a particular emotional response is inevitable. You are constantly describing the world to yourself, giving each event or experience some label. You make interpretations of what you see or hear, you judge events as good or bad, painful or pleasurable, you predict whether they will bring danger or relative safety. Since childhood people have been telling you what to think. You have been conditioned by family, friends and the media to interpret events in certain ways.
These labels and judgments are fashioned from the unending dialogue you have with yourself, and color all your experience with private meanings. The thoughts are constant and rarely noticed, since they are without prior reflection or reasoning, but they are powerful enough to stimulate your most intense emotions. Such "self-talk" is often composed of just a few essential words or a brief visual image, acting as a label for a collection of painful memories, fears or self-reproaches. They would be seen as unrealistic, exaggerated and over-generalized if reviewed objectively, but in practice they appear automatically in response to stimuli. They just pop into the mind and are believed without being questioned or challenged, nor are their implications and conclusions subjected to logical analysis.
Preoccupation or obsession with one type of thought causes tunnel vision, in which only those aspects of existence that support that way of thinking are recognized. The result is one predominant and usually quite painful emotion, such as chronic anger, anxiety or depression. Tunnel vision is the foundation of neurosis and is the opposite of awareness.
Increasing awareness requires noticing and questioning automatic thoughts, particularly those which are causing continued painful feelings. Regard your thoughts as a slow-motion film. Look at your internal dialogue frame by frame - notice the millisecond it takes to say "I can't stand it", or the half-second image of a terrifying event. Notice if you are internally describing and interpreting the actions of others: "She's bored ... He's putting me down".
Continue to the next article, Combatting Distortions