WHEN THINKING GOES AWRY
In the case of the car crash, I maintained a healthy belief that the future did not hold a series of life-threatening crashes in store. (Check out part 1) But not all my experiences have led to this outcome. Here I share a short story about what happened when my inappropriate thinking got the better of me. Inappropriate thinking is when our own thinking gets in the way of us being our best selves in a situation; when we make a bad situation worse – or a good situation bad(!) – by the way we think about it. In appropriate thinking has led me to miss out on many opportunities from jobs, to travel, to speaking opportunities, even to getting my teeth straightened as a teenager. But my lifelong struggle has been with emetophobia…
As a young person, I developed a phobia. I became terrified of me and others being sick. Actually, that is too passive. I created a phobia. In therapy, we searched for the “trigger” – the traumatic event that “made” me phobic. We explored various theories, and maybe one of them was the correct one. Maybe it was a combination. But I did not have such exceptional childhood experiences. I did not have a serious illness that caused prolonged periods of vomiting. In fact, I was hardly ever sick in any way!
Other people with my experiences do not develop a phobia, but, in all likelihood, other people with my thinking about my experiences will develop anxiety, a phobia or depression.
Some people will say “your problem is genetics,” or that I have a “pre-disposition to anxiety”. But then you would think every potentially anxiety-inducing event would have made me anxious. For example, although I was bitten by a dog, I never developed a fear of dogs. I believed I had probably provoked the dog and knew that I would be more careful in future. But someone else being bitten by the dog could have turned that into a phobia by their thinking. I lost my footing swimming with my family in the sea and swallowed a lot of horrible salty water and thought I would never come to the surface, but I am not afraid of water and love to swim.
If I have a genetic or psychological pre-disposition then why am I not now phobic – or at least anxious – about driving in cars? And how did my emetophobia, social anxiety, and fear of the dentist all go away? If I have a genetic pre-disposition, how was it that I was emetophobic and had social anxiety but was not claustrophobic like my Mum or obsessive-compulsive like my Dad? Nor did I suffer depression, or a host of other mental afflictions that family members suffered.
When I say it is faulty thinking, I am not saying it is my fault. It is likely that although my parents were not emetophobic, they may have inadvertently increased my focus on the fear of vomiting. They did that by joining in when I would ask them if I looked pale, feverish, or otherwise sickly. My parents probably did it by checking the sell by dates rather than teaching me the “sniff, taste, eat” test. As caring parents, they did it in a host of ways that were unintentional but, nonetheless, were powerful. They modeled anxiety, and in the absence of a better model, I copied them.
PERSPECTIVE – ADJUST OR STRUGGLE
It is also important to consider the time factor. The reality is that for most people a bout of sickness feels crappy for a couple of hours. If they are unlucky, a couple of days. Most of us can stand even the most unpleasant things for a couple of days. But when we are children, two days seems like forever. Were you ever bullied at school and longed for the weekend to be safe at home? If you experienced bullying on Wednesday then the weekend seemed a lifetime away.
I have always contended that we create a sense of time based on the lifespan we have experienced so far. When you are 5, three months to Christmas is a significant amount of time compared with the time that you can remember. But when you are fifty-five, three months to Christmas seems like no time to get ready! (See my post on perspective.)
It is similar when we are ill. If you get sick on Thursday and you will be better by Saturday, that is not so bad. But as a child that is a lifetime. If at that time, we start catastrophizing the experience and start thinking of it as something that will not end, but will last forever, then it is terrifying. If, as we get older, we don’t retrain our thinking and learn to evaluate the experience with an adult’s perspective, we continue to be afraid now of something that we learned to fear when much younger, even though the reality of it has changed. Maybe our limited attention spans and hunger for instant gratification and relief are also factors. But these are all learned behaviors too, and they can be unlearned.
Take a look at these photos. Is the building sinking into the land as the original photo suggests? Or is the photographer lying on a slope and the building is solid and secure? With better information, we can change our perspective.
So yes, I do believe that phobias, anxiety, and depression are thinking errors. And, however hopeless we are and helpless we feel, I believe we can learn to change our thinking and build new habits. It takes willpower, practice and effective training!
If you would like to know more, check out the rest of my website and book a FREE introductory meeting and let’s start to straighten out your perspective!