Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap 3: Three Ways out Your Suffering Mind

[Before reading this post, you might like to look at Feeling Crap: A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind, as well as Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind.]


That’s the million dollar question isn’t it.

The Suffering Mind wants none of this crap, this very human-suffering-crap – for no other creature on this planet suffers in the way that we do. None of them possessing the language with which to suffer: words, concepts, abstract symbols that can make thoughts and feelings and text-messages as mind-breakingly real at times as sticks and stones.

My dog Max experiences the pain of existence in exactly the same way that I do: the pain of physical and emotional injury, the pain of social abandonment and exclusion, of not getting what he wants. Max experiences “reality slaps” like this on a daily, even hourly basis (as do I). But he doesn’t suffer them in the way that you and I do. Not one bit.

Max will never write a blogpost or create a piece of technology called a laptop on which to write it. Nor will he, or any other member of his species invent something like the internet to disseminate these words to other sentient, language-producing creatures.

Us homo sapiens have immeasurably benefitted from language, but consider for a moment the price we’ve had to pay in allowing language to be the primary currency of all our mental processes. Because that’s how, for the most part, we communicate both inside ourselves as well as externally with other human beings. Think of the ways in which language produces joy and pleasure but also immeasurable suffering for each and every one of us on a daily basis, and for our human species as a whole.


If everything your language-focused mind has been trying to do so far hasn’t really helped, or helped in only a small way, maybe it’s time to look at some other options?

If you’re frequently locked in the struggle I’ve described above with your pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, problem-solving mind, maybe you need a more RADICAL solution: one that still uses language (our primary currency, we can’t avoid it), but is also opens us up to other channels of processing?

What we perhaps need is a solution that targets those three crappy layers, but not necessarily in the default Jim’ll Fix It ways of this thinking/languaging lump of human meat we call “the brain”.

If the Blinkered Mind is programmed to say GO AWAY to pain, as well as becoming at times overwhelmingly FUSED with it, then one thing we can maybe start to do is introduce some Receptive Mind strategies into the mix.

In this layer, we might need some DEFUSION processes to help us when we’re “stuck” in a particularly strong reaction (mental or physical) to a painful event.

We might also start practicing MAKING SPACE FOR for difficult thoughts and feelings.

MAKING SPACE FOR practices are an alternative to allowing the mind to do what it does best and by default: pushing painful stuff away, or wrestling interminably with it in the hope that it can be solved like a maths problem. This might help us to free ourselves up to focus on more meaningful actions and activities instead.

Part of this might also involve cultivating the second layer of RADness: Aware Mind.

One aspect of Aware Mind is the development of a more FLEXI-SELF approach to life’s challenges: practising ways of seeing things from different, and hopefully more helpful angles. Also: not getting into arguments or disagreeing with what our minds tell us about the world and ourselves.

To help us do this, we might need to “drop anchor” again and again in order to bring our minds back in MINDFUL CONTACT with what’s actually going on right here and now, as opposed to the what’s happening inside our language-filled heads.

Also, let’s clarify your core values and  begin some devoted, committed action: a few small steps, towards some meaningful goals in your life.

Each of the drawings in this post took me varying amounts of time to create, from a few minutes to a number of hours, and many weeks of writing and fiddling around with words and images to put it all together. The process was at times frustrating and disheartening when things didn’t go according to plan, but in the end I got this crappy little article out of it – a crappy little article which is meaningful to me, and hopefully for you too?

I’ve deliberately used a somewhat “spiritual” word here for the third RAD layer: Devoted Mind. Not because the valued actions need to be religious or spiritual per se.

You can be devoted to your family, or to a creative pursuit, or a football team. I’m devoted to my dog Max, and to my therapy practice, also to learning poems I love, like this one, off by heart (preferably on a walk or a hike). But I don’t have any expectation that you could or should become devoted to dogs or poetry or hiking, unless these are aligned with your core values!

We need to work out what you want to be devoted to, as well as how you’re going to show (through your actions) your devotion. It does seem though that choosing something important in our lives  “to set apart by a vow” (the origins of the word “devoted”) is almost essential when it comes to living life the fullest.

You get to choose however what you want this to be and how you can turn that into something meaningful that you can then dedicate time and energy towards.

So are you ready to take back control of your super-helpful, often over-helpful, problem-solving, pain avoiding (crappy) brain and get back to living your life to the fullest?

If you are, let’s talk some more about this RAD crap and see how I can help you to get a bit closer to some of the peace and contentment you seek, that we all seek, as well as a life that is valued and meaningful to you in the long run.


If you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605). 

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind

[Before reading this post, you might like to look at Feeling Crap: A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind ]


Let’s dig a little bit more deeply into our very human crap.

Might it be fair to say your mind is labelling all of that crap as BAAAAAD crap at the moment? Good, let’s label it as BAD crap, because maybe that’s what it is, even though it’s also our brains and minds doing their brainy/mindy/languagey/labelling stuff (good me/bad me, good Mum/bad Mum, good day/bad day etc.).

It’s not our brain or mind’s fault. They’re designed to do this, remember? Problem-solve as much as possible through evaluation and comparison in a bid to keep us away from anything they perceive as a threat to us? And it’s not our fault for sometimes buying into the very BAD stuff they sometimes or often come up with. A rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong!

For the sake of simplicity though, let’s say there might be three layers to our suffering, three layers of BAD crap.

The first I’m going to call BLINKERED MIND.

When pain in any shape or form shows up in our lives, our problem-solving brains become very, very busy and focused on this pain as if the the pain itself were a terrible threat to our continued existence.

In order to work on these problems our brains quite often fuse with the painful thoughts, feelings, urges, or body sensations, to the point where the thing we’re struggling with starts taking over our lives.

It can sometimes feel or look like that moment in any good horror film where some poor soul is being jerked about like a puppet by the demon now controlling its mind and body. We too can also become controlled, smothered, overwhelmed by our own problem-solving, pain-solving minds.

Also, because pain in any shape or form is so uh painful, our suffering Blinkered Minds will often try to avoid this pain in a very intuitive way.

“GO AWAY it says to the painful thought or feeling. Also: “I’m getting away from all of this shit!” Maybe we go away with booze or drugs, ice-cream, TV (or in my case ice-cream and TV), Twitter/WhatsApp/Facebook, or working long hours.

Or maybe we physically try and escape our lives: staying in bed, or going on a holiday, or cutting off communication with someone we’re in conflict with. Again: the natural, default GO AWAY function of our brains and minds can sometimes start to run, and ruin, the whole show!

When our minds go Blinkered they often also go into Autopilot Mode.

Their focus, their “route” you might say is set, or stuck in a particular way of doing things.

Autopilot Mind equally gets stuck in the past or the future. Focusing bitterly, or regretfully, on where our lives are flying to and from.

Also: why this might be happening to us, or why this has always happened to us, returning again and again to a particular set of memories and experiences.

Sometimes our minds do this fruitfully, as when they sit down to write a short story or a memoir, but very often they do this with a great deal of suffering, and almost no benefit for our present lives.

We also often become fixated on what’s ahead: doing so so with anxiety, worry and problem-solving busy-ness.

Autopilot Mind has no time to enjoy the journey of life. Life is never a sunset or a shooting star,  always just another maths problem.

Like we might binge on a Netflix series, Autopilot Mind binges on problem-solving in an attempt to make sense of, or find a solution to our suffering. But because it’s on Autopilot, when it gets to the end of the suffering script or “route”, it just goes back to the beginning and starts all over again.

So we get stuck on certain routes or grooves of the mind, outdated coping strategies that whirr around and around like a broken record.

We can also get stuck in a certain way of being, a certain kind of identity. Why don’t you sit back for a moment and ask the Identity-Setting part of your mind to complete the following sentence stem and see what it comes up with.

[SPOILER ALERT: It’s unlikely to suggest anything especially positive. Minds aren’t designed to do that. Positivity doesn’t keep us safe from perceived threats and harm.)

Whatever “me” our suffering minds are identifying with at this moment…(again, complete the sentence stem below for yourself)…

…this “idea” of ourselves, these words, become like a small, claustrophobic single-seater aircraft which we can’t get out of until it lands.

Here’s another one for you to get your mind to work on.

Last one.

The main problem with this process is that our minds are designed to fly in certain patterns continuously, without ever landing.

Unless we help them to do so.

So that’s the second layer of BAD crap: when our minds, in the process of carrying out their primary tasks (analysing our lives as if they were maths equations) end up flying in quite rigid, inflexible patterns.

It’s often a case of 1+1=2 when dealing with our somewhat inflexible minds.

And 2, more often than not, can sometimes just equal more…pooh. More suffering.


Perhaps as a result of the first two layers of crap, but maybe also for other reasons we become DISCONNECTED from all the good stuff in our lives.

In Blinkered and Autopilot Mind we are often out of touch with those things that give our lives meaning, which is to say our core values.

What is it that really drives us? What do we want to actually DO with our one wild and precious life, other than fighting off painful mind-states?

Understandably, when we are disconnected or unclear about this, we can also become disconnected from…LIVING!

Which is to say: we stop doing all the things that are most meaningful to us whilst we fight with our minds. Instead of focusing on valued-living activities, we might also end up doing other stuff: things that we think will “make us happy” or give us some momentary pleasure (tub of Belgian Chocolate Häagen-Dazs and an endless stream of mindless sitcoms for Steve, please!), rather than feeding our souls.

Or maybe we end up doing what other people, or even the marketing forces of our culture tell us will make us happy, but often fail to do so.

So what to do about all of this BAD crap?!

Good question. You can find some answers to that in my final post on The Suffering Mind: Three Ways out of The Suffering Mind.


Otherwise if you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605). 

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap? A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind

Hello, are you feeling a bit crap?

If you are, welcome, you’re in good company.

You might not feel like you’re in good company. In fact, you might feel quite alone at the moment: at odds, and kind of stranded with your suffering mind.

When we’re feeling crap, it’s very normal for our suffering, problem-solving minds to react to those crappy feelings with a lot of self-doubt and worry.

This is the kind of thing my suffering mind starts saying. How about yours?

Our suffering minds will usually start responding to the problem-solving questions they pose to themselves, giving us lots and lots of feedback.

Imagine the above “feedback” delivered in the sneery, sermonising tones of your least favourite person. I call this part of my suffering mind “Dave” after someone I went to University with. Dave really thought he was my friend but he was actually a bit of a know-it-all bully. Do you have your own Dave, or Mildred who’s absolutely certain of what you’re doing wrong with your life?

Here’s another question the suffering mind poses to itself and attempts to answer.

Let’s watch Dave answering the must-be-something-wrong-with-me question (for me). You might like to tune into your own suffering mind at this point and let your own Dave or Mildred supply you with a wrong-with-you list for yourself.

And it probably won’t stop there.

When our suffering minds get stuck into us, what they “say” can feel very real and pertinent.

Our response is often just to suck it all up: “Yes Dave, you’re right! I am all of those shitty, unlovable qualities! And look at my massive, Dumbo-sized ears!!!”

This is because, when our minds start to suffer, we become fused with their words to the point where they can start to feel really overwhelming! A bit like this.

We lose sight of the fact that these are just words being churned up by our own minds in an attempt to “helpfully” explain the reasons for why we might be feeling so crap.

Our suffering minds forget that they’re just a blank page onto which anything (any thought, feeling, sensation, urge) can be “written” no matter how hurtful or ludicrous. Instead we all too easily buy into and sort of become those words floating around in our minds. When that happens, I would call my experience a “suffering” one. How about you?

When we are suffering, not only do we blame ourselves for being human, but also others. We might even start blaming Dave, our very own minds and brains, labelling and sometimes shaming them with analysis, diagnoses and put-downs.

We can also become very frustrated with ourselves for not-feeling-OK.

He’s right though.

A healthy human brain like Dave is perfectly compatible with a suffering mind. In fact the two might go together like [cue this song from Grease!]: a rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong?

Maybe this is because Dave was not –sorry Dave- designed by Apple (or Samsung).

Three hundred years of evolutionary science and a 100 years of neuroscience have pretty much confirmed that our healthy, but oftentimes suffering human brains are “designed” with 3 primary tasks.

Can you guess what those are?

Go on! Before scrolling down, guess the job description for that three pound blob of fat, and blood and white-grey matter, that sits perched on the top of your spinal cord, which we all proudly call THE HUMAN BRAIN!

You can perhaps start to see how these primary tasks carried out 24/7, automatically, in no consultation with our minds, might lead to good feelings at times, but also lots and lots of suffering. Almost as a by-product.

Say I’m at my local Morrisons, happily filling my supermarket trolly with ice-cream, and wine, and cheese, and crackers, and chocolate, and maybe some salad too. I’m looking forward to all that yummy stuff, and feeling pretty good at this pleasure seeking moment (dopamine!).

I’m also relieved to have seen and avoided my neighbour – the one I had an argument with with last week who I spotted walking down another aisle. Whew, and another dopamine hit of pleasure!

But maybe that evening I eat the whole tub of Hagen Daz as I am wont to do and drink most of the wine and feel sick and full of self-loathing.

And maybe if I hadn’t avoided that uncomfortable meeting with my neighbour in the supermarket we might have been able to get back on an even keel?

If you’d like to dig a little bit deeper into this, please take a look at my second post, Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind.

Or otherwise, if you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605).

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Anxiety By Heart Defusion Depression Feel Better Living A Valued Life Patience Refuge Ritual Self-care Self-compassion Strategies and tools Suffering Worry

April Fools?

In many ways, I love being the butt of someone’s joke, I love to be duped and fooled. Love magic tricks, especially of the Derren Brown variety that always reveal something profound to us about ourselves and others. As well as entertaining us in the process of fooling us.

I love Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. I particularly love it when those two Great Foolers themselves get fooled. And I love it when I am able to make a fool of myself (of my often-times pompous notions and ideas, at least when I’m defused enough to see the pomposity and ego-driven nature of them). And if done with love, and a kind of, hey-we’re-all-bozos-on-this-bus cameraderie, I can even enjoy it when others make a fool of me.

But I also feel uncomfortable when I see people being laughed at or mocked, especially if they are unable to defend themselves. I hate to see defenceless animals and children being treated unkindly, or made fools of.  I also don’t like the more cruel spectrum of practical jokes that shock and alarm, or even really dismay people on this day where we celebrate all things foolish and fooling. Would I eradicate the day itself if I had the power to do so? Never. Because life is a series of April Fools’ days you might say, a constant series of small and large practical jokes sent to challenge us and teach us. Here are just two of my favourites:

-We grow up in a culture that tells us romantic love is the be-all and end-all in terms of living a rich, full, and meaningful life. And then when we get into a relationship, and at some level we start to feel duped by that narrative. So we fight, bitch and moan at our other halves, because we’ve all bought into those lovely, lovely lies of Pretty Woman or Sleepless in Seattle. When instead of the happy-go-lucky romcom we get Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Her,  or Fatal Attraction, perhaps even The Shining, don’t we feel like fools? And when we’re not in relationships, we feel outcast or alienated from this Core Romantic Narrative pumped into our minds through everything we watch and read 24/7, embedded in every song we’ve ever listened to.

April Fools y’all!

-Or what about the reality slap, that wonderful term created by Russ Harris to describe the gap between what we have and what we want: of jumping through hoop after arduous hoop (academic, interviews, various forms of social ingratiation) to get that prestigious job, or car, or amazing holiday, or nice house -whatever we think might bring us happiness- only to find ourselves miserable with the glamourous trappings we’ve worked so hard to attain.

April Fools y’all!

And by y’all, I include myself first and foremost in that dupery.


But the ultimate April Fool is the fool our minds make of us on a daily basis. Never out of pure malice – for how can a lump of meat, the brain, sitting between our ears bear malice towards us? Rather, as a function of their problem-solving, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding programming. Every time my mind tells me that the reason so-and-so didn’t respond to my text message is because a) they don’t care about me or what I’ve written to them, or b) they don’t fundamentally like me, or whatever other narrative they come up with, and I buy into that and suffer. Again: April Fools y’all!

Every time my mind singles out something I don’t like in someone else and then tells me that’s a reason to hold that whole person in contempt – April Fool!

Every time my mind says: that pleasurable thing you want (the extra glass of wine, the seventh chocolate digestive, the checking-of-Twitter or firing off an email ten minutes into a walk, or a yoga session, or some meditation) DO IT NOW – April Fool!

I don’t know about you, but my mind makes a fool of me dozens of times a day. 

What to do? Recently I’ve gone back to doing a particular kind of meditation practice, both formally (as in a sitting practice), but more so informally, which I’ve found really helpful with my foolish mind. It might surprise you, as it doesn’t involve trying to argue with your mind, saying to it “No mind, you’re wrong when you say that your [boss, brother-in-law, mother, father, colleague – choose where applicable] is NOT a [insert choicest, most damning criticism of that individual]”.

Arguing with our minds doesn’t work because the mind is the best barrister ON THIS PLANET! It has hundreds of files, videos, taped phone calls, enough to fill 256 gigabyte’s worth of memory on a standard laptop demonstrating the ways in which that person or situation has said or done something foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and just generally shitty in a bid to hurt or upset you. And maybe they have. This is not to downplay the foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and just generally shitty things we do and say to each other. I have been a veritable font of foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and generally shitty words and actions to other human beings in my misguided and suffering mind-states. And I have also been privy to other people doing some of that around me too.

But if you even attempt to argue with your mind about all of this, it will win. It will prove you wrong, and itself right over and over again. And you will then be left in whatever state your mind gets you into when it plays and replays those particularly juicy, particularly painful tidbits, as verifiably true. So that doesn’t work (at least in my experience – has it ever worked for you?) – that will just lead to more suffering, which is something we want to try and reduce, right? I do. 

Apart from defusion, when our minds start getting Practical Joker/Tormentor on us, what else can we do? A clue might lie in one of my favourite poems of all time, one I know by heart:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Man! (Also: woman!) Isn’t that the reality-gap/slap encapsulated in one small stanza?! This bears repeating:

What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.


Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


My cynical/judgemental/critical brain sometimes can be a bit hard on kindness. “Hallmark card sentimentality,” it sneers. And I don’t argue with it when it says that. Yes, Dave, I say (I call that part of my brain, Dave), yes, that’s one way of looking at it, thank you.

You could say, not that I’d get Dave to agree with me on this, that a kindness practice rather than the word itself or a nice Instagram quote on kindness (the word/quote lasts a millisecond, hardly registers in the mind at all) is a “medicine” for all those inadvertently unkind parts of ourselves.

Inadvertently unkind because they are trying to be helpful in their sometimes heavy-handed suggestions, comparisons, judgements, lectures and sermons. They don’t realise that, just like our parents and teachers and political figures (at times), they only further torment or make fools of us rather than being useful or helpful. Their comparisons, judgements, lectures and sermons only make us suffer more not less.

A kindness practice, ideally done on a daily basis, in the same way we might take some vitamins or brush our teeth daily, works at the very roots of our mind’s magic tricks, the illusions and delusions it feeds us to keep us safe, but which also separate us from the world, other people, and often times our own deeply held values and beliefs. When I remember to do some of the kindness practices below, it often feels like an almost selfish pleasure, in that the gain for me is huge (over time) but also doesn’t hurt anyone else. In fact might make their challenging, suffering lives a tad lighter too.

A win-win is always great. Bingo! Or “Yahtzee” as one of my kindness gurus, Dan Savage, will sometimes exclaim when he suggests a win-win outlook for his suffering callers. Dan Savage is also a great example of how you don’t need to be all whispery and quiet, all holier-than-thou to practice kindness. His Savage Love podcast is the kindest advice show on the planet, even though Dan is often scabrously blunt and pragmatic, but his advice and wisdom and good humour is always delivered with kindness and a desire to be helpful.That’s the kind of kindness I aspire to.

So here’s a challenge for us in our bid to become kind in a way that some of your Kindness Warriors* are kind.

  1. If you’d like to do a formal practice (I’m aiming to do this once a day for the whole of April) I’d recommend this 15 minute guided meditation from Russ Harris. I think it’s structured in a way to really get us into a kinder space towards ourselves and others, without being sentimental or “spiritual” in a cloying/annoying way (although finding our mind’s response to sentimentality and spirituality annoying, would also give us another way to be kind to ourselves):

2.  Informally, the next time you go for a walk with your whirring, chattering mind, focus your attention on random strangers passing you on the pavement, and then instead of the usual stuff our minds do (commenting, ignoring other people, feeling intimidated by their “otherness”) silently direct some of these well-wishing phrases to them in a mantra-like loop:

“May you be peaceful, healthy, content.”

“May you experience love and kindness.”

“May your life be rich, and full, and meaningful.”

It may feel a bit weird when you start doing it, but notice what happens to the mind if you push past the cynicism and boredom of your Inner-Dave.

3.  Start learning by heart the whole of, or a part of the poem Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, or some poem that has a similar kind vibe that speaks to you. Maybe Hopkins’ “My own heart let me more have pity on”, or Pat Schneider’s “The Patience of Ordinary Things”, or Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”. Recite these poems by heart when you feel low or anxious.

4. Think of something you’re struggling with at the moment. Close your eyes, maybe even place a hand on your head or chest, and imagine someone kind that you know, or even a pet, saying some simple but kind words to you in sympathy. Whilst writing this today I’m strugging with a stonking head cold and am feeling fairly grotty. I had my kind person, and Max, say to me: “I’m sorry you’re feeling so crap today. Go easy on yourself, give yourself a bit of cosseting, Steve.”

If you try out any of these, please do tell me how they go in our next session together.

*My kindness warriors, also my ideal dinner party guests, just off the top of my head: Dan Savage, The Obamas, David Mitchell, K D Lang, Stephen Fry, the Queer Eye dudes, Russell Brand,  Adam Phillips, Caroline Lucas, Steven Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Penn & Teller, Mary Oliver, Ajahn Sucitto, and many many folk from various spiritual traditions. Also, even more so, all those people you wouldn’t recognise if I named them. My clients, each and every one of them: all sensitive bods, and all incredibly kind people. My parents and other relatives, even with all their flaws, their sometimes foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and maybe even shitty and unkind ways at times. And what about that guy who stopped his car when he saw little Max, my dogchild, running in the middle of a busy road after he went AWOL in Fryent Park a few years back? Or the kind elderly lady and her husband who always stop to say a few kind words about my garden when they see me outside weeding over the weekend. The list goes on and on. As does this one]

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The Stoic Fork

At the moment, I wake up to jackhammers and drills.

Not just the usual jackhammers and drills of my own thought curves and mental convolutions, supplied by that sometimes-not-so-kind, maybe even Totally Loopy Word Machine we call the mind. But also “real” noise, and lots of it, from the builders next door who are probably going to be around for the next couple of months (!!), completely refurbishing and extending 109 Ruskin Gardens.

I’d been warned, I knew it was coming, and have got the owner of 109, Mr Patel to graciously agree to keep the work relatively quiet when I’m seeing clients. But at all other times,  the gloves (or in this case, the jackhammers, drills, power-saws, etc) are off. Which is to say “on”. All the time.

Already I can feel the effect of all that banging and the drilling on my nervous system, and partly in response to this, am trying to re-engage with a mindfulness practice: mindfulness being all about working on our willingness to “be with” upsetting thoughts, memories, body sensations, and external irritants. Especially those we have limited or no control over. 

I’ve also been finding a great deal of solace in a fork. A conceptual fork. Though in sessions, I’ll occasionally rush into the kitchen to grab a real fork in order to explain the concept to someone else.

This conceptual fork, sometimes called The Stoic Fork, is designed to get us to reflect on control, as well as the relinquishing of it. If you’re anything like me, control is important to you. It helps you to feel like you have agency, and choice, and most importantly “a say” in what happens in your life.  And yes, control is important. One understanding of depression is that it proceeds from a misperception that we have no control over our lives whatsoever, that whatever we’re struggling with is so difficult and burdensome and entrenched, that we will never, ever, ever get a handle on it. Understandably that can be something of a buzzkill (to say the least).

This fork that I’m going to excitedly wave in front of your face says that we do have control, we do have agency, and the ability to make choices that are value-driven and meaningful to us. It says that we do have control over choices that will impact on how we live our lives right now in the present, as well as choices moving us forwards into the kind of lives and people we want to be in the future.


We need to skilfully differentiate between what is in our power and what is not. And that very differentiation happens to be the first thing we read about in a book of collected discourses issuing from the lips and the mind of a crippled, Roman slave named Epictetus who lived 2000 years ago. I like to imagine him as a slightly more philosophical and Latin-spouting version of Tim Renkow’s lovably, cheeky character in his new sitcom Jerk (if you haven’t seen it, do!).

Here’s a little experiment for you to try out before I explain the fork.

Think of something that’s getting you down at the moment. It could be anything: a physical ailment, a relationship issue, a problem at work, a crass comment someone made recently in your presence, something unsettling you’ve seen or read, or even six dudes banging and hammering and drilling all day long right next to where you’re sitting trying to capture the evergreen wisdom of Epictetus 😉

Make a mental or actual note of this thing, this thing that’s irking you. Now imagine me whipping out my IKEA fork (see drawing below) and asking you, as Epictetus might have done to another slave as they laboured from dusk to dawn on a Roman building site: “How much control do you have over this person/thing/situation/noise that’s upsetting or worrying you?”

Be warned! This is a trick-question. If you’re anything like me, you might say this in response: “Well not much, not as much as I’d like, but….”


“Don’t lecture me on control. Control has got nothing to do with this. Or if it does, it’s because that person/thing/situation is out of control and they’re driving me craaaaaaazy.”

To which I imagine Epictetus using his walking stick to draw a line in the sand showing the following “fork”.






























As you can see, on the right he’s written the kind of things we sometimes believe or think (maybe not always consciously) that we can control, especially with regard to other people: what other people think what they say, how they act around us. But equally this works with any phenomenon in the outside world, or the inside world (our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, urges, memories). I have no control over whether my stomach might decide to translate my anxieties and worries into an unpleasant, nauseous sensation, or if my head might suddenly begin to ache, or feel tired and woozy.

Epictetus believed that the only thing we have any control over are thoughts/feeling, and our actions. As you can see in the picture above, I’ve gone and crossed out THOUGHTS & FEELINGS because although he was an incredibly wise man, and although many of his thoughts and theories have formed the bedrock of our modern psychotherapy and psychology practices, we also know now, that thoughts and feelings, just like body sensations, memories, and urges cannot be controlled!

I can no longer control what thought is going to flit into my mind in the next minute than I can control what tweet Donald Trump is going to send out to his 60 million followers in the next hour. In fact, modern psychology has shown that the more we try and control our thoughts, feelings, urges, and memories, the more persistently they surface to assail us. It’s a bit like a government trying to ban a “naughty” or “insiduous” book or film (Lady Chatterley’s anyone, A Clockwork Orange?): as soon as people catch wind that now they’re not “allowed” to read that book, or watch that film, that’s the only thing you then want to do. Our minds seem to work according to similar dynamics.

If this is so, then we need to keep on reminding ourselves in some way, that the one and only thing we have any control over whatsoever, is our behaviour: our actions, our words, the things we write and say, and do. That’s it. That’s all we have. And that’s a lot!

Want to feel more in control? Control, in a healthy-ish, skillful-ish way your actions. As we know, there are lots of unhealthy ways to control our actions: starving ourselves (eating disorders) or overeating; exerting or harming our bodies so as to distract or focus our attention away from our pain; limiting our interactions with people we might enjoy being with in order to keep ourselves safe. So as with anything, a mindful approach is best when it comes to our actions. But always with the notion that, apart from what we say and do and write, we’re not in the driver’s seat of any shared inter-action (with another person or the world), and never will be.

How does one then apply this wisdom? I find it helpful to use the fork as a kind of reminder or mantra when I find myself getting irked by someone else’s behaviour. Let’s say a friend or a loved one does or says something that triggers me in some way, so that my knee-jerk response is one of the following:

  1. “I wish they hadn’t said/done that!”
  2. “Why couldn’t they have responded to me with X, rather than Y”
  3. “I bet they’re now thinking this about me!” etc. etc.

This list might stretch to infinity, as infinite are the ways in which our minds proliferate suffering on the back of a perceived threat or hurt. At this point, if I’m quick enough to catch the panicky or angry thought, I might inwardly try and shrug my shoulders, call to my mind the image of that stoic fork and go:

“Can’t control her/him/it. Let it go.”


“ I have no control over this person/situation/thing. Let it go.”


“Not my circus, not my monkeys!” (or if you prefer the original Polish version of this expression  “nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy” [pronunciation here])

I might follow this with an attempt at a kind of rueful smile here, which can also sometimes help, particularly if it replaces the expression on my face at that moment which is likely to be a glowering or grimacing one.

It’s a simple practice, but I find it quite a powerful, especially when used in the midst of interacting with other human beings who are invariably going to be saying or doing things we wish we could control, but acknowledge we can’t. And even it allows us to be a little bit more flexible and kind with ourselves as well as with each other, we’re onto a winner.  

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Anxiety Control Living A Valued Life Ritual Structure Values


We need to talk about ritual. The anthropologist Roy Rappaport writes: “Humanity is a species that lives and can only live in terms of meanings it itself must invent.” If this is so, ritual is fertile ground for creating meaning in our lives.

For meaning, we often substitute the word philosophy, but a distinction needs to be made here a la Foucault’s discrimination between philosophy and spirituality. Philosophy, says Foucault, attempts to articulate the conditions and limits that circumscribe a subject’s access to truth. Spirituality, in contrast, consists in a set of practices through which “the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth.”

Embedded in the word “spirituality” is, of course, the word “ritual.” Ritual knowledge, the knowledge gained from spiritual practices, postulates that in order to know there must be a transformation of the subject. Although the S-word is not bandied around that much in psychotherapy anymore (Freud’s atheism enduring to this day_, I think the cogntive-behavioural transformations we’re seeking in our lives are sometimes better understood as spiritual ones. Ritual gives us access to these spiritual truths.


Ethology explains how animals adopt rituals in order to smooth over the conflicts inherent in our inner emotional states. Animal ceremonies evolve, so the reasoning goes, in response to having to manage emotional discord created by ambivalence inherent in the conflict created by two or more behavioral tendencies that may lead to trouble. Sexual attraction, for example, draws a pair close together, but proximity also produces fear and the desire to flee, on one hand, and hostility and aggression on the other. A balanced attitude from the extremes of flight or fight is required for successful mating, and the ritualization of appeasing gestures and displays is the route to establishing such attitudes.

Certain psychotherapeutic schools, especially those designed to work with trauma (Schema Therapy, EMDR, Internal Family Systems) are all alive to the ritual possibilities of healing. Trauma and ritual have always in some way been linked, chicken-and-egg like. So how do we create in our highly abstract and technology-infused culture the space for abreaction that might be found in Traditional cultures like the Inuit and which we as human animals might still require for our well-being.

The Inuits, as do many tribal societies, employ drumming matches and singing duels to deal with conflict situations within the tribe. Someone who believes himself wronged by insult, theft, or injury may challenge his opponent to a singing duel, which takes place publicly, in the enclosed confines of the igloo. Jokes, insults, and derision, delivered with a sarcastic and mocking tone, are staples of the match, accompanied by dramatic enactments, such as pretending to sew the opponent’s mouth shut, sticking out one’s buttocks, or breathing in the face of the opponent. The opponent, for his part, is to take in the performance with reserve and equanimity, until his turn comes to sing complaints and insults. In this way, mistakes, misdeeds, faults of character, and perceived wrongs are freely and publically aired, a process that relieves such wrongs of their potency to generate violence. Typically, the contest ends with a reconciling feast. Such duels can last for days, even years, and are conducted both within and across communities.

I think we can learn a great deal from the ways in which these tribal conflicts have been solved for millenia while trying to understanding how our inner conflicts can be managed.


Frazer in his Golden Bough suggested three things about ritual. First, the original and primary ritual form is that of blood sacrifice. The word sacrifice literally means to do (facere) a sacred thing (sacra). Metaphorically speaking, the blood element indicates that this “sacrifice” needs to feel deeply meaningful and valuable. We sacrifice something in the short term (money, time, effort) for a long term goal.

Second, ritual represents natural process or mythic-historical events or narratives, the stories of our lives and those of our tribes.

Third, ritual is inherently an act of magic, informed by the idea that “you can produce any desired effect by merely imitating it.” I think this is true for the enactment processes of experiential psychotherapy models like Schema Therapy and Internal Family Systems where we attempt to “enact” a change by visualising or re-enacting new ways of being. It’s that old Gandhi line: Be the change you wish to see. Ritual, to use Don Handelman’s term might also be seen as “events that re-present.” Ritual in this view is like a piece of society, or the socialised psyche, which society or client-therapist cut out and offer to themselves for inspection, reflection, and possibly criticism.

What often gets in the way of this happening in sessions, is that we can struggle to step out of a more superficial “play frame” in order to enter the deeper healing frame of ritual. In the play frame messages and gestures are understood to be fictive, if not actually false: the child waving a wand is not Harry Potter, and that child knows it. Within the ritual frame, in contrast, messages are conceived and understood to be somehow true and real; another way to put this is that the ritual frame articulates that which is taken to be of ultimate, foundational, and fundamental value. The difference lies in the metamessage associated with each. The metamessage of ritual is that everything within the ritual frame is sanctified, true, real, and believed.

We see this very powerfully in the documentary The Work, my favourite doc of this year where the prison in which certain dramaturgical and body-centered rituals take place, becomes a kind of transformative “cave” of the soul, maybe like the Chauvet caves explored by Werner Herzog in his equally wonderful Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Imagine: small numbers of our Paleolithic ancestors descending into the dangerous territory of the caves. Perhaps a charismatic individual leads them, revealing and inducting new members into the mysteries of the underworld. There, in the shadows and light cast by torches, they drum, sing, and reach out to the textured surface of the walls, with their cracks, folds, and hidden recesses. The skulls and bones of animals are handled and enshrined in niches or on rocks, which serve as our earliest altars. Images of animals are painted; earlier paintings are revered as icons of the intimate relation between human and animal worlds, and as links to the group’s ancestors. The impulse to leave the daily world of light and safety for the dangers of the caves suggest an urge to seek out a distinct place for extraordinary (ritualised) acts, a place that by virtue of its very separation from ordinary life was perhaps thought to offer knowledge and experience of the world in its totality.


Ritual can also be seen as a way of structuring our lives. Most religious communities are structured on an hourly, if not even minute-by-minute basis. We can learn a great deal from the ritualised structuring of these communities. Let’s look at a passage from the “Testamentary Admonitions”, written by the statesman and courtier Fujiwara no Morosuke over a thousand years ago:

Upon arising, first of all repeat seven times in a low voice the name of the star of the year. Take up a mirror and look at your face, to scrutinize changes in your appearance. Then look at the calendar and see whether the day is one of good or evil omen. Next use your toothbrush and then, facing West, wash your hands. Chant the name of the Buddha and invoke those gods and divinities whom we ought always to revere and worship. Next make a record of the events of the previous day. Now break your fast with rice gruel. Comb your hair once every three days, not every day. Cut your ngernails on a day of the Ox, your toenails on a day of the Tiger. If the day is auspicious, now bathe, but only once every fifth day.

We have here a template you might say for ritualized living:

  • Repeating an action (perform each morning; repeat seven times)
  • Prescribing and regularizing the details (next do this; next do that)
  • Linking and elevating the action by associating it with sacred values, narratives, or gures (chant the name of the Buddha)
  • Framing an action temporally, in terms of symbolic or historical time (in the name of the star of the year; look at the calendar)
  • Invoking powers or gurus to whom reverence, respect, honor is due (divinities whom we ought always to revere and worship)
  • Performing the action with a special attitude (look at your face; reflect)

Sometimes when we are struggling in the welter of experience, it can be useful to think of how we can ritualize our lives according to these guidelines.

One of my daily rituals is to to learn and recite poems. Taking the dog for a walk each day I recite an ee cumming’s poem which has these lines in it:

i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Every time I recited these lines, no matter what has been going on in my head up to this point, I notice that I am able to become more present to the world around me, especially the natural world. My ears really do wake up (even to the roar of traffic, but also bird-song), and my eyes open to the diversity of nature’s forms. Ritual brings us back into the rhythms of our bodies, our culture, and our species. Through ritual we become fully alive once again to the present moment.



Aldous, G., & McLeary, J. (2017). The Work. Dogwoof.

Eliade, M., & Doniger, W. (2004). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. (W. R. Trask, Trans.) (With a New foreword by Wendy Doniger edition). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. New York: Harper, 1958.

Frazer, S. J. G. (2009). The Golden Bough A Study in Magic and Religion. (R. Fraser, Ed.) (Reissue edition). Oxford: OUP Oxford.
Handelman, Don, and Galina Lindquist, eds. Ritual in Its Own Right: Exploring the Dynamics of Transformation. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005.

Handelman, D. (n.d.). Framing. Theorizing Ritual, Eds., J. Kreinath, J. Snoek & M. Stausberg. Leiden: Brill. Retrieved from

Herzog, W. (2011). Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. Revolver Entertainment.

Markman, K. D., Proulx, T., & Lindberg, M. J. (Eds.). (2013). The Psychology of Meaning (1 edition). Washington, DC: American Psychological Assoc.

Rappaport, Roy. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Anxiety Feel Better Freud Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me

(Lettuce) Anxiety

Every day, the hundreds of fronds that make up the lettuce in my raised beds launch into a Lactuca Sativa version of that 80s stadium anthem by Simple Minds:

Don’t You Forget About Me
Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!
Don’t You Forget About Me

The din of all that lettuce chanting in unison is deafening.

Anxiety Diagnosis

Identifying the Basis of Your Anxiety

As I mentioned previously, the main sources of anxiety in the brain are two neural pathways that can initiate an anxiety response. The cortex pathway is the one most people think of when they consider the causes of anxiety. The cortex is the pathway of sensations, thoughts, logic, imagination, intuition, conscious memory, and planning. Anxiety treatment typically targets this pathway, probably because it’s a more conscious pathway, meaning that we tend to be more aware of what’s happening in this pathway and have more access to what this part of the brain is remembering and focusing on. If you find that your thoughts keep turning to ideas or images that increase your anxiety, or that you obsess over doubts, become preoccupied with worries, or get stuck in trying to think of solutions to problems, you’re probably experiencing cortex-based anxiety.

The amygdala pathway, on the other hand, can create the powerful physical effects that anxiety has on the body. The amygdala’s numerous connections to other parts of the brain allow it to mobilize a variety of bodily reactions very quickly. In less than a tenth of a second, the amygdala can provide a surge of adrenaline, increase blood pressure and heart rate, create muscle tension, and more. The amygdala pathway doesn’t produce thoughts that you’re aware of, and it operates more quickly than the cortex can. Therefore, it creates many aspects of an anxiety response without your conscious knowledge or control. If you feel like your anxiety has no apparent cause and doesn’t make logical sense, you’re usually experiencing the effects of anxiety arising from the amygdala pathway. Your awareness of the amygdala is likely to be based on your experience of its effects on you—namely bodily changes, nervousness, wanting to avoid a certain situation, or having aggressive impulses.

Therapists often don’t discuss the amygdala when treating anxiety disorders, which is surprising, given that most experiences of fear, anxiety, or panic arise due to involvement of the amygdala. Even when the cortex is the source of anxious thinking, it’s the amygdala that causes the physical sensations of anxiety to occur: pounding heart, perspiration, muscle tension, and so on. However, when family doctors and psychiatrists are prescribing medications to reduce anxiety, they’re often focused on the amygdala, even though they may not mention it by name. These medications, such as Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Klonopin (clonazepam), often have the effect of sedating the amygdala.

Such tranquilizing medications are very effective at quickly reducing anxiety. Unfortunately, they do nothing to change the circuitry of the amygdala. So while they reduce the anxiety response, they don’t help change the amygdala in ways that would be beneficial in the long term. Some of the strategies we will be working on together in therapy however will help you to do this.

Identifying the Basis of Your Anxiety: Amygdala, Cortex, or Both?

Anxiety is a complex response that, in most cases, involves a variety of areas of the brain. While the amygdala and cortex both play a role, it’s helpful to know where your own anxiety begins. This determines which strategies will be most helpful in reducing it. Completing the questionnaire below, will help us to assess whether your anxiety is cortex-based, amygdala-based, or both. You’ll also learn more about how your anxious thoughts and reactions affect you and your life.

As you may be starting to realise, even though the amygdala is the neurological source of the anxiety response, creating the physical sensations of anxiety and often overriding cortex-based thought processes, anxiety doesn’t always begin in the amygdala. It can also begin in the cortex, with thoughts and mental images activating the amygdala. If you become anxious when you see a growling dog and begin to hyperventilate, that would be amygdala-initiated anxiety. If you’re pacing nervously as you anticipate an important phone call, that would be cortex-initiated anxiety. Understanding where and how your anxiety begins will allow you to take the most effective approach to interrupting the process.

It’s important to remember that when anxiety begins in the amygdala, cortex-based interventions, such as logic and reasoning, don’t always help reduce anxiety. Amygdala-based anxiety can often be identified by certain characteristics; for example, it seems to come from out of the blue, it creates strong physiological responses, and it seems out of proportion to the situation. When anxiety starts in the amygdala, you need to use the language of the amygdala to modify it. Amygdala-initiated anxiety is most effectively reduced by the interventions we can explore and work on together in therapy such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness, self-compassion strategies, breathing exercises, healthy distraction, and the role of physical movement and exercise.

If, on the other hand, you know that your anxiety began in the cortex, the more effective approach is to change your thoughts and images to decrease the resulting amygdala activation. This is also something we can work on together.

So let’s do an informal assessments that will help you evaluate and describe your typical anxiety responses to assist you in determining where your anxiety originates.


We’ll start by addressing anxiety initiated by circuitry in the cortex. Certain types of activation in the cortex, often experienced as thoughts or images, can eventually cause the amygdala to activate the stress response, along with all of its unpleasant symptoms. The varieties of cortex-based activation are numerous, but they all have the same potential consequence: putting you at risk for experiencing anxiety. The following assessments will provide more insight into some of the most common ways the cortex pathway can initiate anxiety and will help you identify which ones you experience.

Typically, people don’t pay close attention to the specific thoughts and images occurring in their cortex, so it is essential that you become more watchful and aware of what’s happening in your cortex at any given moment. By learning to recognize different types of anxiety-provoking cortex activities, you can modify them before they escalate into full-blown anxiety. We’ll explain how to do so in part 3 of the book.

Questionnaire: Assessing Left Hemisphere-Based Anxiety

The left hemisphere of the cortex can produce a type of anxious apprehension that shows up as a tendency to worry about what will happen and search repetitively for solutions. With this type of anxiety, people tend to ruminate or focus intensely on a situation or feel the need to discuss a situation repeatedly.

Read through the examples below and check those that describe you:

_ I rehearse potential problem situations in my mind, considering various ways things could go wrong and how I’ll react.

_ I often think about situations from the past and consider ways they could have gone better.

_ I tend to get stuck in the process of considering different ways I could talk to someone about concerns or other topics.

_ Sometimes I just can’t turn off a stream of negative thinking, and it often prevents me from sleeping.

_ I find it comforting to consider a problem from a number of different perspectives.

_ I feel much better when I have a solution for a possible difficulty, just in case the situation arises.

_ I know I tend to dwell on difficulties, but it’s just because I’m trying to find explanations for them.

_ I have difficulty getting myself to stop thinking about things   that make me anxious.

If you checked several of the items above, you may be spending too much time focusing on distressing situations and bringing to mind thoughts that increase your level of anxiety. Although your left hemisphere may be looking for a solution, a strong focus on potential difficulties can activate the amygdala. You may be missing many opportunities for anxiety-free moments by thinking about problems that might never occur.

The left hemisphere provides us with some of our most complex and highly developed abilities, and we humans couldn’t have created the technologically sophisticated world we live in without its contributions. But the worry and rumination it creates don’t provide the solution to anxiety. In therapy, we’ll take a closer look at various ways the left hemisphere contributes to anxiety. We’ll help you identify specific kinds of thought processes that lead to anxiety, such as pessimism, worry, obsessions, perfectionism, catastrophizing, and guilt and shame, and explain how you can change these thought processes.

Questionnaire: Assessing Right Hemisphere-Based Anxiety

The right hemisphere of the cortex allows you to use your imagination to visualize events that aren’t actually occurring. Imagining distressing situations can activate the amygdala. The right hemisphere’s focus on nonverbal aspects of human interactions, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, or body language, may cause you to jump to conclusions about this information. For example, it’s easy to make too much of a facial expression or a gesture and assume someone is angry or disappointed.

Read through the statements below and check any that you experience often:

_ I picture potential problem situations in my mind, imagining various ways things could go wrong and how others will react.

_ I’m very attuned to the tone of people’s voices.

_ I can almost always imagine several scenarios that illustrate how a situation could turn out badly for me.

_ I tend to imagine ways that people will criticize or reject me.

_ I often imagine ways that I might embarrass myself.

_ I sometimes see images of terrible events occurring.

_ I rely on my intuition to know what others are feeling and thinking.

_ I’m watchful of people’s body language and pick up on subtle cues.

If you checked many of the statements above, your anxiety may be increased by a tendency to imagine frightening scenarios or rely on intuitive interpretations of people’s thoughts that may not be accurate. These right hemisphere-based processes can cause your amygdala to respond as if you’re in a dangerous situation when no threat exists. A variety of strategies, including play, exercise, meditation, and imagery can be useful for increasing activation of the left hemisphere, producing positive emotions, and quieting the right hemisphere. Again, this is something we can work on in our sessions together.

Questionnaire: Identifying Anxiety That Arises from Interpretations

Very often the interpretation of events, situations, and other people’s responses can lead to anxiety. When this occurs, a person’s cortex is creating unnecessary anxiety. The anxiety is being produced not by the situation, but by the way the cortex is interpreting the situation.

To determine if your cortex has a tendency to turn neutral situations into sources of anxiety, read through the list below and check any items that apply to you:

_ I have a tendency to expect the worst.

_ I think I take people’s comments too personally.

_ I have trouble accepting the fact that I make mistakes, and I beat myself up when I do.

_ I have a hard time saying no because I don’t like to disappoint people.

_ When I have a setback, I find it overwhelming and feel like giving up.

_ When I have trouble finding something, I worry that I’ll never find it.

_ I tend to focus on any flaws in my appearance.

_ When someone makes a suggestion, I can’t help but consider it a criticism.

If you checked many of the statements in the list above, the interpretations provided by your cortex are probably increasing your anxiety. Many people believe that certain situations are the cause of their anxiety, but anxiety always begins in the brain, not with the situation. Anxiety is a human emotion, produced by the human brain, and emotions are caused by the brain’s reaction to situations, not the situations themselves. People have different reactions to the same event because of their differing interpretations. For example, seeing a wolf in the woods may terrify a camper but fascinate a zoologist. How your cortex interprets events can obviously have a strong impact on how much anxiety you experience. In chapters 10 and 11, you’ll learn how to resist anxiety-producing interpretations.

Questionnaire: Assessing Your Anxiety Based in Anticipation

When you anticipate, you’re using your cortex to think about or imagine future events. If those future events have the potential to be negative, anticipation can serve to increase anxiety. As with left hemisphere-based anxiety, this can lead to anxiety about things that might not ever occur. And even if the event does come to pass, you may start dwelling on it long before it occurs or you need to be concerned about it. So instead of experiencing the event just once, you experience it repeatedly before it ever occurs.

Here are some statements that reflect a tendency to anticipate. Read through the list and check any that apply to you:

_ If I know a potential conflict is looming, I spend a lot of time considering it.

_ I think about things that people might say that would upset me.

_ I can almost always think of several ways that a situation could turn out badly for me.

_ When I know that something might go wrong, it’s constantly on my mind.

_ I can be worried sick about something months before it occurs.

_ If I’m going to have to perform or speak in front of a group, I can’t stop thinking about it.

_ If there’s a potential for danger or illness, I feel like I need to consider it.

_ I often waste time thinking of solutions for problems that never occur.

If you have a tendency to anticipate negative events, you’re creating more anxiety in your life than is necessary. Keep in mind that, while everyone experiences difficult situations in life, there’s no need to live through these events in the cortex when nothing negative is occurring. We’ll cover strategies for modifying your thoughts in chapter 11.

Questionnaire: Assessing Your Anxiety Based in Obsessions

When people have obsessions (repetitive, uncontrollable thoughts or doubts), perhaps accompanied by compulsions (activities or rituals performed in an effort to reduce anxiety), these behaviors arise in the cortex and are fueled by the anxiety of the amygdala. Obsessions, which are very much a product of the frontal lobe of the cortex, have been linked to excessive activation of the circuitry in the orbitofrontal cortex, an area just behind the eyes (Zurowski et al. 2012).

Read through the following statements, which reflect both obsessions and compulsions, and check any that apply to you:

_ I devote a great deal of thought to keeping things in order or doing tasks correctly.

_ I’m preoccupied with checking or arranging things until I believe they’re right.

_ I’m haunted by certain doubts that I can’t escape.

_ I have concerns about contamination and germs.

_ I have some thoughts that I find unacceptable.

_ I worry about acting on urges that come into my mind.

_ I get stuck on a certain idea, doubt, or thought and can’t get past it.

_ I have routines that I need to complete in order for things to

feel right.

If you checked several items, consider whether you’re spending a lot of your time focusing on thoughts or activities that keep you stuck in patterns that maintain your anxiety in the long run and rob you of precious time. Obsessive thoughts can occur without compulsive behaviors, but often compulsions form when a person finds that these behaviors provide temporary relief from anxiety. Unfortunately, even though the compulsions don’t help in the long run, they can be maintained by the amygdala because of the temporary relief from anxiety that follows them. Therefore, coping with obsessions and compulsions usually requires an approach that targets the amygdala as well as the cortex. We’ll discuss ways of dealing with cortex-based obsessions in our sessions, and look at exposure methods that combat amygdala-fueled compulsions too.



Now that you’ve identified cortex-based causes of your anxiety, we’ll help you assess your tendency toward amygdala-initiated anxiety. As a reminder, anytime you feel anxiety or fear, the amygdala is involved. However, the following assessments will help you zero in on experiences where your anxiety response originated in the amygdala. Once you know the starting point, you can choose approaches that will best control your anxiety. If the circuitry in the amygdala itself is what initiated your anxiety, strategies that target the cortex will be futile. In part 2 of the book, we’ll provide a number of techniques that are helpful for controlling amygdala-based anxiety, including relaxation strategies, exposure to feared objects or situations, engaging in physical activity, and improving your sleep patterns.

To determine whether the amygdala or the cortex initiated a specific anxiety response, you need to consider what was happening before you began to experience anxiety. If you were focusing on specific thoughts or images, that suggests your anxiety began in the cortex. If, on the other hand, you feel that a specific object, location, or situation immediately elicited an anxiety response, the amygdala is more likely to be the starting point.

Questionnaire: Assessing Your Experience of Unexplained Anxiety

When your anxiety seems unexplained or comes from out of the blue and you aren’t able to find any good reason for it, your amygdala is probably the cause. You might honestly say, “I just don’t know why I feel this way; it doesn’t make sense,” because none of your thoughts or current experiences justify the feeling. As we’ve noted, the amygdala often responds without your having any conscious awareness of what’s happening, and the responses it creates are often puzzling.

Read through the following statements, which reflect unexplained anxiety, and check any that apply to you:

_ Sometimes my heart pounds for no reason.

_ When I visit others, I frequently want to go home, even though things are going fine.

_ I often don’t feel in control of my emotional reactions.

_ I can’t explain why I react the way I do in many situations.

_ I have sudden rushes of anxiety that seem to come from out of nowhere.

_ I just don’t feel comfortable going to certain places, but I don’t have a good reason for feeling that way.

_ I frequently feel panicky with no warning.

_ I usually can’t identify the triggers of my anxiety.

As we’ve noted, you may not have access to the amygdala’s memories. As a result, when your amygdala reacts you may have no clue what it’s reacting to or why. The good news is, even when you don’t understand why your amygdala is responding, you can choose from a wide variety of techniques to help calm your amygdala and rewire it.

Questionnaire: Assessing Your Experience of Rapid Physiological Responding

When the amygdala is the source of your anxiety, you’re more likely to have noticeable physiological changes as one of the first signs of your anxiety. Before you have time to think or even fully process the situation, you may experience a pounding heart, sweating, and a dry mouth. Because the amygdala is strongly wired to energize the sympathetic nervous system, activate muscles, and release adrenaline into the bloodstream, having physiological symptoms as the first sign of anxiety is a good indicator that you’re dealing with amygdala-based anxiety.

Read through the following statements, which reflect rapid physiological responding, and check any that apply to you:

_ I find that my heart is racing even when there’s no obvious reason.

_ I can go from feeling calm to being in a complete panic in a matter of seconds.

_ I suddenly can’t get my breathing rhythm to feel right.

_ Sometimes I feel dizzy or as though I might faint, and these feelings arise quickly.

_ My stomach lurches and I feel nauseous right away.

_ I become aware of my heart because I have pain or discomfort in my chest.

_ I start sweating without exerting myself.

_ I have no idea what comes over me. I just start trembling without warning.

If you checked many of these statements, which reflect strong and rapid physiological responding, your anxiety may originate in reactivity of the amygdala. When you experience such responses, you may assume that an actual threat is present. But your amygdala could be reacting to a trigger that isn’t an accurate indicator of danger, so remember that a feeling of danger doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of a threat. You can use these physiological responses as an indication that you should use the strategies suggested in part 2 of this book.

Questionnaire: Assessing Your Experience of Unplanned Aggressive Feelings or Behaviour

A tendency toward aggression is based on the fight element of the fight, flight, or freeze response. Whereas some people want to retreat and avoid conflicts or threatening situations, others tend to have aggressive responses. Suddenly feeling threatened can make them prone to anger and lashing out at others. This aggressive response, which has its roots in the protective nature of the amygdala, is especially characteristic of people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Read through the following statements, which reflect unplanned aggressive feelings or behavior, and check any that apply to you:

_ I explode unexpectedly in certain situations.

_ I often need to do something physical to express my frustration.

_ I strike out and later realize that my response was too strong.

_ I snap at others with little warning.

_ I feel that I’m capable of hurting someone when I’m under stress.

_ I don’t want to lash out at people, but I can’t help it.

_ Family members and friends know to be cautious around me.

_ When I’ve been upset, I’ve broken or thrown objects.

If you checked several of these statements, which reflect a tendency to show signs of anxious aggression, the amygdala-based interventions in part 2 of the book will be helpful. Your amygdala’s attempts to activate an aggressive response can seem compelling, but you can exert control in how you direct your behaviour. Regular physical exercise can help curb this kind of responding, and taking a brisk walk to get out of a threatening situation can help satisfy the drive to take immediate action.

Questionnaire: Assessing Your Experience of Inability to Think Clearly

When you find yourself not just anxious but also unable to concentrate or direct the focus of your attention, this is a strong indicator of amygdala-based anxiety. When the amygdala steps in, it overrides the attentional control of the cortex and takes charge. When you experience this amygdala-based control of your brain, you’ll feel unable to control your thoughts. Remember, from an evolutionary standpoint the amygdala’s ability to seize control when it detects danger helped our distant ancestors survive. Therefore, the amygdala has retained this capacity. Still, it’s both disconcerting and frustrating to temporarily lose the ability to decide what to focus on or think about.

Read through the following statements, which reflect an inability to think clearly, and check any that apply to you:

_ When I’m under pressure, my mind goes blank and I can’t think.

_ I know that when I’m anxious, I’m unable to focus on what I need to do.

_ When I get nervous, sometimes I can’t concentrate very well.

_ When I’m being yelled at, I’m unable to come up with a response.

_ When I feel panicky, it’s often difficult for me to focus on what I need to do.

_ Even when I try to calm down, it’s hard for me to distract myself from how my body is feeling.

_ When I’m scared, sometimes I draw a total blank about what I should do next.

_ During a test, I often can’t remember what I’ve learned, even when I’m prepared.

If you checked several of these statements, you may frequently find yourself in situations where you have an inability to think. The connections from the amygdala to the cortex can influence how attention is directed, and evidence suggests that people who experience high levels of anxiety often have weaker connections from the cortex to the amygdala (Kim et al. 2011). Cortex-based strategies for coping with anxiety are often not very useful when the amygdala is activated. Some of the strategies discussed in part 2 of the book, such as deep breathing or relaxation, will be helpful even when your thought processes are limited by activation of the amygdala.

Questionnaire: Assessing Your Experience of Extreme Responses

If your responses often seem over-the-top and out of proportion to the situation at hand, your amygdala is probably behind this pattern of extreme responding. It may be taking over and acting to protect you from a danger that it perceives, but which you’d recognize, in a calmer moment, as not requiring such a strong response. One of the most intense types of extreme response is a panic attack (discussed further in chapter 5), but there are others. In all cases, these extreme responses are caused by activation of the fight, flight, or freeze response when it isn’t necessary. Remember, the amygdala’s approach to situations is typically “better safe than sorry,” and it’s programmed to react swiftly and strongly—even when it isn’t completely sure of the details involved in possible threats.

Read through the following statements, which reflect a pattern of extreme responses, and check any that apply to you:

_ At times, my anxiety is so strong that I’m afraid I’m going crazy.

_ I get paralyzed by the level of anxiety I experience.

_ Other people have told me they think I overreact.

_ When something is out of place or disorganized, I can’t tolerate it.

_ At times, I’ve wondered whether I’m having a heart attack or stroke.

_ Sometimes I just lose my temper and go into a rage.

_ Little things, like an insect or dirty dishes, can send me into a complete panic.

_ Sometimes things around me don’t seem real, and I fear I’m losing my mind.

If you checked several of these statements, you’re probably suffering from excessive amygdala activation. As we noted earlier in the book, some amygdalas are more reactive than others, even quite early in life. Unfortunately, children with reactive amygdalas don’t necessarily learn amygdala-based strategies for dealing with their anxiety, and the result is often entrenched patterns of overreacting or extreme avoidance. But as you’ve learned, it’s never too late for the amygdala to learn to respond differently.

After having worked through these questionnaires, you should have a better understanding of your tendency to experience cortex-based anxiety and determined whether specific thought processes are contributing to your anxiety. Similarly, your experiences of amygdala-based anxiety: unexplained anxiety, rapid physiological responding, unplanned aggressive feelings or behaviour, inability to think clearly, and extreme responses. Now that you have a better idea of where your anxiety originates—in your cortex, amygdala, or both—we’re ready to look more closely at the nature of each type of anxiety and learn techniques that will help you minimize or control your specific anxiety responses.