If Anxious Thoughts Were Labeled As Junk Mail

 ”If only worry thoughts came clearly labeled  ”unreliable” or “unrealistic”, life would be so much easier. Then, like junk mail, they could be sorted out, ripped up, and thrown away. Since they don’t, there’s only one way to get enough distance from the anxiety to actually see it for what it is. When parents relabel and demote the validity of a worry thought, kids will feel freer to do the same. It’s a technical glitch, a false alarm, a worry brain jumping to conclusions, it’s a sticky “what if” thought. Don’t trust it!”

-  Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.

I purchased the quoted book to try to help my three year old overcome his recent fear of driving on roads (he’ll drive around our backyard with my husband but panics at the gate to the road). If you have a child struggling with anxiety, worry, or phobias, the book will teach you effective methods for helping your him or her manage and triumph over it. And if you don’t have a child, simply replace the phrases “parent” and “child” with “Loving Adult” and “Inner Child.” (This is a handy technique that you can use to glean powerful information from parenting books as you’re learning how to parent your inner child in healthy and loving ways.) So although I purchased it to help with my own actual child, nearly every page has information that applies to the work that I do with clients struggling with anxiety.

Most of my client share that they’ve struggled with anxiety their entire lives, and often recall that the anxiety started at around age eight. (Eight is a pivotal year developmentally as kids develop greater awareness of the outside world and are making the leap into “big kid-ness”: i.e. not quite a child but not quite an adolescent, which can trigger feeling out of control.) Well-meaning parents, who often struggled with anxiety themselves or pushed it underground until it manifested as depression, helplessly brushed away the anxiety with platitudes like, “Don’t worry about that!” or “Don’t be such a scaredy-cat.” Obviously, such simple and insensitive statement do nothing to alleviate anxiety. This is different than the examples stated in the above quote as the author is encouraging parents to help children identify different parts of themselves: worry brain versus true self. This is similar to the language of Inner Bonding®, where we talk about the Wounded Self versus the Core Self or Inner Child. Much of the work of healing from anxiety is learning to identify that the thoughts that inform your running commentary are coming from your Wounded Self, not your Core  Self.

The challenge that occurs with transitions like getting married and becoming a parent is that our culture reinforces the “junk mail” thoughts with messages like, “If you’re not happier than you’ve ever been, you’re making a mistake, you don’t love him/her enough, or you don’t really want to be a mother/father.” Our cultural addiction to happiness prevents the necessary grief and normal fear associated with transitions from finding acceptance, expression, and release. Our messages about love, romance, and marriage are soaked in Hollywood-induced fantasy, and motherhood is usually presented as utopian bliss. When the shadow feelings of grief, doubt, confusion, and fear set in, they’re in such direct contrast to the cultural images that most people can only respond with shame, which then mutates into anxiety. Sorting the false thoughts as junk-mail becomes impossible if you don’t have access to new information that educates you to the truth. This is where the work of Conscious Transitions comes in.

Regardless of whether or not you’re in transition, if you’re struggling with anxiety the most effective and necessary course of action is to learn to identify the false beliefs or thoughts and replace them with the truth. In the beginning this usually means simply noticing the false thoughts, and then naming them. “Notice it and name it,” I tell my clients each week. For example, if a thought arises that says, “You don’t deserve to be loved,” you gently notice it by saying, “That’s an unloving thought” and then name it by saying, “It’s coming from my wounded self.” Once you notice it you begin the process of separating from it, and when you name it you’re sending the internal message that says, “This isn’t my true self. This thought is coming from a wounded and scared part of me.” In other words, instead of automatically and habitually believing the thought, you create a space inside that allows you to question its veracity. Defusing from the fear-based thoughts is an essential first step in healing from anxiety since you can’t challenge something that’s wound around you like a boa constrictor.

You may have to repeat this step a thousand times. If you’re wired for anxiety you’re battling a neurological mis-firing that immediately triggers a flight-or-flight response to situations that don’t warrant this level of fear. Your wounded body might believe, for example that “love isn’t safe” or “love means loss (of self or other)” and unless you challenge these deeply-rooted beliefs and old scripts, you’ll continue to behave as if they’re true. They may have been true as a child – which is where relationship anxiety becomes more confusing than other forms of anxiety because there was truth to the statement at one point in your life – but as a capable adult these statements are no longer true. Once you have a grasp on the fear-based thoughts have been ruling your life, have identified them as coming from your wounded self (notice it and name it), you can start to make different choices regarding your actions.

The next time you’re feeling anxious, the first question should be, “What am I telling myself that’s creating this anxiety?” The next question should be, “How am I responding to this thought?” When you can respond from your Loving Adult by noticing it, naming it, and then challenging it or replacing it with the truth and taking loving action (the steps of Inner Bonding®), you’ll have made great strides in your effort toward creating new and healthy neurological and emotional pathways which will allow you to live an anxiety-free life.

And, like most things, this is all easier said than done. Healthy doses of commitment, time, and patience are required when re-wiring habitual thoughts that have been in place for years, if not decades. But the fact that you’re reading this means that something inside of you is sick and tired of being a victim to your fear. Perhaps you’re ready to learn the skills and tools that will allow you to turn over a new leaf. If so, welcome to the journey. I’m here to support you in any way that I can.

11 comments to If Anxious Thoughts Were Labeled As Junk Mail

  • Katrina

    I love this post – thank you Sheryl.

    I started this journey of replacing anxiety thoughts with curiosity, love and compassion with you and Margaret through IB two years ago now and so the mention of patience and commitment deeply resonates with me. So many times I felt I would never “get” it.

    Only really in the last 6 months have my efforts with this work moved from my over active terrified mind to be soaked up by my body and feel integrated. For the first time in my life I feel whole. This no longer feels like an intellectual process with illusive concepts that I read about and yearn to fully experience for myself.
    Finally I can say I am feeling more peace than anxiety, more joy than fear on a daily basis – and it feels all the more sweet after all the hard work it has taken me to get here.

    Of course I still have much more to learn, (really is a lifelong process!) but I can honestly say I am now enjoying the journey rather than finding it such an exhausting, lonely slog through the dark tunnel of my scared and isolated mind.

    When I habitually integrate this work of replacing fear with love and truth and consistently and consciously choose to live and approach my life from this stance I can feel the healing taking place in my mind and body. My wish is that everyone would do this work – I know so many people who would benefit!

    Thank you so much Sheryl for shining this beacon of light and love across the waters to me in London and to many others around the globe. You are a wonderful companion to have on this journey!!

    • Thank you for this lovely and inspiring response, Katrina. Healing certainly is a journey without a destination, and I’m thrilled to hear that you’re starting to enjoy the process. Keep going!

  • Sarah

    I really identify with the part of your post that talks of our culture reinforcing “junk mail” thoughts by insisting on unrelenting happiness. My husband and I visited our newborn niece this weekend, spurring talks of when we might have kids of our own. My thoughts have swung between daydreaming of having my own baby and shying away from the thought with all the fears and anxieties I’ve always held about parenting starting to bubble below the surface. If I based things on the level of happiness or peace I felt I certainly never would have gotten married, and probably would never “feel ready” to conceive a child either. I think in some sense chasing after complete happiness always ensures you won’t get it. Something really valuable I’ve learned from this site is that healthy life isn’t meant to live completely free of negative thoughts, it’s just responds to them in a healthy way and doesn’t become disabled by them. Thanks for the post! I’ll definitely be on the lookout for “junk mail” as I think about becoming a parent:)

    • Exactly, Sarah! So much junk mail surrounding marriage and motherhood, and if you can approach the next transition on alert for the junk mail, it will be a lot easier to manage the negative thoughts and unrealistic expectations.

  • Kim

    Hi Sheryl and thanks for this great article. I can never hear too much of this type of reminder and reinforcement to practice inner bonding. I would love to hear how you work this process with your 3 year old. I can read the book too, but if you ever felt like writing an article about how you put it into practice in your family, I know it would be very welcome reading.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you Sheryl et.al,

    This was a welcome article especially since right before I read it, I was wrestling with anxiety. My friend send a feng shui horoscope with a quick and supposed to be fun survey about the future. My read, “You will have a great year and will experience a major life-changing experience for the good”. Automatically, my mind went to the possibility of my marriage ending. For a person who had some early traumatic events of experiencing the loss of 7 family members before the age of 4, even a playful horoscope can send me into anxiety. After my husband and I experience some of life’s biggest transitions that Sheryl outlined in her e-book all with about 2 years, I am just settling into my body, and the past 10 months have been rewiring those neural and emotional pathways of “flight or fight” through practicing almost daily writing, sound healings, meditation, exercising and now yoga. The articles in this blog have been like a life line as well, full of soulful, courageous and conscious advice from one who has walked the path. The reference of negative thoughts as “junk mail” was so helpful to me. Sometimes, in the barrage of negative thoughts, there is a tendency to accept them as truth, and to not name it, label it and look at it carefully before swallowing them whole. I have been doing work with a coach using an approach very similar to Inner Bonding, and that has been so helpful. SOme of the anxiety I am feeling I finally identified as my inner kids feeling afraid of me going back to work and neglecting them. They need some reassurances that me going back to work doesn’t mean forgetting about them. I believe addressing their concerns and anxious thoughts gently will enable me to approach the job search with more clarity and confidence as the adult.
    Thank you ladies, for sharing your wisdom and experience of conscious transitions.

    love to all, jennifer

  • Thank you, Kim and Jennifer. Kim: The practices we’ve put into place with our 3 year old are more on the behavioral side of the cognitive-behavioral re-wiring. We’ve been starting slowly by talking about driving and how it allows us to travel to fun places and do fun things. We’ve been role-playing between a monkey and a pig so that the pig can practice bossing back the fear-based monkey. And just today he bravely got into the car and we drove (at a snail’s pace at his request) down the block, back home, and then around the block. It was a big breakthrough and we’re hopeful that we can break down this phobia before it becomes too deeply entrenched.

  • elizabeth

    I’ve read this post several times over the last few days. I’m going through a very difficult time right now – my mother (who I had a complicated relationship with) died several months ago after a horrific and very quick battle with brain cancer, 4 months after I had my second daughter. I was doing ok, but recently became really depressed and began suffering from major anxiety about my relationships – particularly with my husband. In our 12 years of marriage I think we’ve fallen into some bad habits. I have become obsessed with the thought that we’ll get divorced even though I can’t really see the path to that (and my husband passionately says that won’t happen). I just feel completely untethered now and am trying to deal with reconciling my difficult relationship with my mother, trying to be a more honest, open and loving person to my husband and children and trying to believe that in 18 months (or whenever) that everything will be ok. Trying to remember that these thoughts I have about divorce and not loving my husband enough are not the truth and coming from a place of fear is proving very difficult for me but I’m desperately trying.

  • Kim

    Thanks for that Sheryl. It sounds very gentle and a nice blend of his own pace and your guidance. Kim

  • antonella

    I’m so happy you shared your experiences..it made me feel less awful and lost! I suddenly lost my dad last year..5 months before getting married…I’ve lost myself, the love for my husband..I held on to something…but I’ve been feeling since our wedding day that I failed my husband and myself..I kept on thinking why me? why us? I so wanted to marry him, and everybody to know how perfect we are for each other..only to spend our wedding day heating everything and everybody..since then I’ve been nagging at my husband non-stop..nothing is good enough..and I’m still wondering why me? why us? the perfect couple who suddenly are so “imperfect” it’s not even funny…my heart aches as I’m never going to be able to look back at my fairy tale wedding or first year of marriage without wanting to cry…and missing my dad!!!But I love my husband so dearly and I know now that I must be strong and look forward to our life together..without being scared or feeling lost!!Thanks girlsxx