When addressing anxiety effectively, we must attend to all four realms of self: physical, emotional, cognitive, and soul – or body, heart, mind, and soul. Attending only to one of the four realms is helpful, but it won’t help you heal anxiety from the root. By “attend” I mean we need tools to work with all four realms, and the tool I’m going to share today will help you on the cognitive/mind realm.
When we’re caught in an anxious storm, it’s often because we’re caught in a story that is powered by fear. By the way, I prefer to talk about the key areas where our wounds constellate as “stories” instead of beliefs or thoughts because a story is a holistic word that encapsulates our whole self, and stories often live in the emotional body as much as the mental realm. These stories can vary depending on the theme of the day, week, or month, but the common through-line is that they stem from a fear-based – and often trauma-based – place inside of us. And they’re almost always a projection, which means they’re pointing to an area of inner wound that needs attention.
I’ll give you a series of common examples of what this looks like when you get hooked in relationships, parenting, health anxiety, and friendship, then talk about the cut-through question that can quickly change the direction of your story.
Your loving partner who adores you says something in an off-handed way that hurts your feelings, and you immediately assume that she thinks you’re stupid. You might come from a history of teasing or bullying, which led to the deeply entrenched belief that you’re “less than” in some way. If you were teased about your intelligence or grew up in a school environment that didn’t value your learning style and unique gifts, this will be a particularly strong hook for you. Your partner likely meant nothing harmful by the comment, but because of your history – and perhaps other factors like feeling tired or off-kilter in some other way in that moment – you couldn’t give her the benefit of the doubt and instead jumped to the first-layer projection.
You’re with your partner and suddenly you feel a pit in your stomach. The first-layer interpretation is that you don’t love him, and if you believe that thought, you’re off and running down the rabbit hole of relationship anxiety that says, “I have to leave. I’m making a mistake. There’s something wrong. I love him but I’m not in love anymore.”
Your child is screaming about how it’s not fair that his older brother gets to use the lighter and he can’t. He screams and screams, and your blood starts to boil. (No, I’ve never been in this situation; hah ;)). Your first-layer interpretation – and one that is strongly corroborated by mainstream parenting culture – is that your child is misbehaving and needs to learn a lesson about how disrespectful it is to scream.
You feel a pain at the top of your head and you immediately assume that you have a brain tumor. Or you’ve been trembling more often lately and your first-layer mind says that you have Parkinson’s. Or you have chest pain and you think you’re going to have a heart attack. I could go on and on about how the anxious mind spins into overdrive when it comes to health anxiety. If you Google any of these symptoms, it’s game over; fear will find evidence to prove your theory and you’ve just poured a gallon of gasoline on your already inflamed inner fear fire.
Finally, we come to the highly overlooked topic of friendship, one of the fields in life that is ripe for conflict. For example, a friend sends you a text and something about it rubs you the wrong way. You assume she meant something negative by it and you run with your first-layer interpretation. Of course, with texting as a primary form of communication these days, it’s easier than ever to misinterpret a tone and take offense.
How else could you respond in those moments? By asking the cut-through question, which is:
“What else could it be?”
The question itself automatically invites a different part of your brain to ignite, the part that isn’t bogged down by habitual responses. In other words, as soon as you remember to ask this question, you step into your adult/inner parent mind instead of the reactive child-mind, and the inherent curiosity in question sets into motion a new neural pathway than the one you’ve been walking down your entire life. As I’ve written about repeatedly on this blog and in depth in my courses, we’re culturally conditioned to take life at face value. We don’t learn to think underneath the top layer, to inquire about metaphors, to ask the cut-through question for intrusive thoughts, which is, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”
The untrained and habitual mind will always jump to the first-layer, obvious assumption when it comes to symptoms, thoughts, and feelings. Part of growing your adult, trained mind (and this has nothing to do with chronological age) is to challenge the antics of the untrained mind, and the fastest way to do this is to develop a habit of asking this question each time you get triggered or hooked.
The question also invites a higher mindset which gives the person or symptom in question the benefit of the doubt. Instead of immediately jumping on the train of thought that believes that the world is out to get you, this question naturally leads you toward a mindset guided by goodwill and a sense of trust.
Underneath the First-Layer Interpretation
If you could pause long enough to ask this question, or even go back and review the situation in your mind when you’re not inflamed, you might discover other interpretations to the initial thoughts, reactions, or symptoms, like the following:
You might see that your loving partner was simply making a comment that had nothing to do with you in that moment, and certainly wasn’t a reflection on your intelligence.
You might remember that having a pit in your stomach is a common anxiety response, and when you ask,”What else could it be other than evidence that I’m with the wrong partner?” you might be able to say, “The pit means I’m scared. I’m so scared to love this deeply. I’m scared to be vulnerable. I’m scared I’m going to get hurt.”
When you child is screaming and you ask, “What else could it be?” it could give you a long enough pause to remember that anger is a defensive response, and that there is almost always pain underneath the anger. This moment of compassion might calm your blood and lead you toward your child, where you would ask him to sit next to you on the couch and hold him until the anger softened into tears and poured down his cheeks and he said through his crying, “I hate being younger and smaller. It’s not fair.”
When you feel unusual physical symptoms and your mind wants to jump on the fear-train as those of us prone to anxiety are wont to do, when you ask,”What else could it be?” you might be able to calm the fear long enough to say, “My headache is probably because I didn’t eat enough today” or “My trembling is probably because I didn’t grieve enough today.” I shared my fear-based response to a symptom I was having over the summer and my exploration of what else it could be in this post.
And when your friend sends an odd text and you ask the cut-through question you might land in a different, more mature part of your mind, one that can attend to the automatic response of hurt but can explore it without falling down the chute of despair.
One moment at a time. One thought at a time. One question at a time. This is how you question the current patterns and set yourself on a new trajectory of growth and healing. This is how you challenge not only the culturally-entrained response but the knee-jerk, fear-based response. This is how we grow consciousness, all together, tumbling through the amorphously gray and mysterious human experience, teaching our minds to orient toward more and more awareness and light.