It was Tuesday night, election night in the USA.
I was sitting on a couch in an AirBNB rental house in Venice Beach California, during a week-long stopover in between conferences in San Diego.
My laptop was open. I half worked and half watched my Facebook feed drip election reactions. The TV was on too, streaming live results that were looking more and more like a victory for Donald Trump.
This article is not intended as political commentary, but let’s just say I didn’t like the thought of a Trump victory based on the campaign he ran. I also thought there were enough Americans who agreed and would vote to make sure he didn’t win.
As we know, that was not the case.
I’m a Canadian and Australian citizen, so I wasn’t voting in this election. I certainly was compelled by it, in the way you are compelled to watch a slow motion car crash.
What I didn’t realize until Tuesday night was how much I was influenced by what was happening.
As I sat there on the couch, with Trump winning more and more states, my anxiety rose. I told myself that at the end of the day, my life wasn’t likely to change no matter what happened in the US election.
Then it happened… My heart skipped a beat.
I’ve had infrequent heart palpitations most of my adult life. While uncomfortable, they are rare and as the doctor explained, completely safe.
A few minutes later it happened again… Thump! — Another skipped heart beat (or to be more medically accurate, an extra heart beat).
I jumped off the couch and went to the kitchen to grab some magnesium pills. Magnesium is my magic vitamin, helping with anxiety, relaxation, sleep and anything to do with the heart (most people are magnesium deficient because we don’t get enough in our diet, hence I recommend everyone take this supplement).
I sat back down on the couch, switched off the TV and decided to ignore the election for the rest of the night. The result seemed forgone by then, and I didn’t need to fuel my anxiety.
Fight Or Flight
Fifteen years ago I visited a cardiologist clinic in Brisbane, Australia, my home at the time. I was there for a full checkup on my heart — an echocardiogram and stress test.
One of the reasons for the tests was because of an inherited heart condition from my father called SVT, which was becoming more troublesome as I experienced major anxiety whenever it happened.
At the time panic attacks and anxiety were a regular part of my life regardless of any heart condition.
My early twenties were some of the hardest years of my life, however, they also lead to one of the greatest self-awareness raising experiences I have ever gone through.
I learned an important lesson about the power of my mind.
Before this experience I was walking around within a web of negativity, unaware that how I thought was impacting my body.
Growing up I considered myself a generally positive person. However, the way I perceived the world and myself inside my head was certainly not positive.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of my own negative framework. I lived and reacted to how I thought, but never stopped to question my choices or attitude.
I was in a sense, asleep, a robot defaulting to opinions and routines that were rooted in fear.
As a result anxiety became a regular companion and eventually erupted into full blown panic attacks.
Coming from a family of anxious people, decedents of a generation including holocaust survivors, it became ‘normal’ to label anxiety as just something people have, that I have too.
Woody Allen made Jewish Neuroticism famous — almost a likable trait — hence I could also add ‘cultural heritage’ as another excuse for why I was frequently on edge.
However, there’s only so far you can go before something has to give.
Panic attacks dialed up the fear level to a new extreme, then concentrated it into an explosive bomb.
If you’ve never experienced a panic attack before, one way I can explain it is like a nega-orgasm — an intense, sweaty palmed, heart racing, mind rushing, terror-filled experience — that’s over in a couple of minutes — and you never ever want to go through it again.
I experienced panic attacks in the most random places; riding at the back of the bus on the way home from university, sitting in a lecture or tutorial, walking down the stairs in my house.
Rationally it didn’t make any sense to me.
Why would I be afraid while traveling on a bus?
As my symptoms progressed from anxiety to panic attacks, and eventually irregular heart beats, it became clear — I had to do something.
One day while on the tennis court I retired mid-way through a match because my heart decided to play to a different drum beat.
I was stubborn and afraid, but I knew I couldn’t go on like that anymore. It was time to visit the cardiologist.
It’s All In Your Head
I remember walking out of the cardiologist’s office all those years ago. I had been given the all clear — my heart was fine.
As it turned out, the problem was me.
Anxiety, panic attacks, heart palpitations — my own mind was the cause.
Yes I did have a heart condition like my father, but he had dealt with it all his life without medication or treatment. It wasn’t a problem for him. Mine was a problem because I made it a problem in my head.
This was a moment of awakening.
I was astounded to learn that I could inflict so much harm on myself and make life so unpleasant because I chose to.
Consciously there is no way I would choose to inflict these things on myself, yet because of how I viewed the world and my place in it, I was.
It turned out I wasn’t on my own cheer squad, and that had to change…
Be The Observer
Monitor your thoughts. Pay attention to how you interpret things around you, how you react to what people say or do. Turn inward and become an observer of your mind.
Step one was to become aware of the source of the problem — my own thought process.
I read books about panic attacks, was given introductory cognitive behavior training from my mother (who was a counselor) and began researching some big subjects, like what is the key to happiness.
Almost all the training I went through at that time hinged on a basic idea…
You are the master of your interpretation of everything.
You create the frame of how you see the word. You decide whether something is good or bad. Everything in life is abstract and subjective, it’s your conscious observation and decision to give something meaning that dictates your reality.
This was empowering, but it wasn’t an instant cure.
Step two was to take my new awareness and make it practical.
I began to monitor my thoughts every day. It was hard at first. Monitoring versus simply going with the flow of your thoughts requires effort. It’s very easy to just let your mind lead the way unconsciously.
As I walked around university each day, I began to make ‘thought monitoring’ a daily practice. It didn’t take long to conclude that I was one big negative-nancy.
Here are some example situations from my life back then, and how I perceived them at the time:
- If a girl looked at me and immediately turned away, it was because she found me unattractive.
- When a friend made a joke about the clothing I was wearing, I became embarrassed and decided all my fashion choices were terrible.
- If I found a new mole on my body, or experienced some kind of new ache or pain, I immediately thought the worst (let’s add hypochondria to the list of conditions!),
- If someone in my social circle experienced something good, like getting a date, winning a competition or landing a great part-time job, rather than feel happy for them, I focused entirely on how these things never happen to me and never will.
- When invited to attend a party, being introverted, my default reaction was to say no. Eventually, after saying no frequently enough, people stopped inviting me. Consequently, I found myself alone most weekends and concluded that there just must be something wrong with me.
…and on and on and on!
My negative attitude led to making choices that created more situations that I could interpret negatively. To make things worse, rather than see my situation as a product of my decisions, I saw it as a reflection of my own inherent flaws.
Rewiring Thought Patterns
As I began to awaken, to observe my own thought patterns, default reactions and frameworks of perception, a critical shift occurred.
I stopped seeing my experience of the world and how people treated me as a reflection of who I was.
Instead, I began to see that everything was simply a reflection of choice and temporary circumstances.
I could decide how to interpret things. No choice was necessarily more valid or true than another choice, but it was clear that there were decisions and interpretations I could make that helped me and hindered me.
When a girl looked at me and then looked away, I could adopt a belief that she was attracted to me and she looked away because she was shy, or I could decide that she looked at me and then looked away because she thought I was unattractive.
In reality I didn’t know what the ‘truth’ was. What I could do, was choose an empowering interpretation of this event.
It was also important to not to conclude that any one experience was indicative of every similar experience.
For example, if I decided that a girl who looked at me in class at university was attracted to me, then I went up and said hello, asked her out on a date, and she said no — I could take that one experience as an indication of what the outcome will be every time, or I could isolate that outcome to just this one situation.
In one framework an undesirable result is looked at as permanent, and in another, as temporary.
These two ideas were revelations to me.
If I could rewire my brain to see situations in a positive light, and even when the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, I didn’t see that outcome as permanent, I could develop a framework for completely changing my life.
Of course becoming aware of these concepts and choices, was easier than actually making them my reality.
There was work to do yet…
Changing The Default To Positive
Step one was becoming aware of my thought patterns and seeing how I was causing myself harm.
The second step was to turn thought observation into thought change. This was where the real work began.
As a basic practice, I began with something simple…
Every day I switched on the ‘observer’ and watched my thoughts.
This was a challenge at first. Until you attempt to observe your own thoughts you don’t realize how much of your life you spend on autopilot.
Your thoughts are running all day long and you are lost IN them. You think how you’ve always thought, reacting to things based on your present disposition. What this is, comes down to your personality, your genes, your upbringing, the kind of people you surround yourself with, and your current physical state (try being positive when you are super hungry!).
If you are like how I was, your default is negative, and thus you are lost in negative patterns and interpretation all day long. The situations you face in life may be dynamic, but your thought reaction, opinions and consequent real life actions will default to your autopilot.
Changing your autopilot response requires you first stop yourself and realize you are doing it.
This is how I began my transformation…
I went about my life, got caught up in negative autopilot thoughts, and then slowly began to observe myself doing this.
Being able to see your own autopilot mindset is challenge enough. Making a deliberate step to stop the autopilot thoughts and change your belief and reaction to a situation is the next level.
As I began this training I realized, as with most things, it takes practice.
Initially, I could get lost in autopilot mode and it would take hours for me to realize, stop myself and make adjustments.
Then as I practiced, the timeframe from getting lost in the negative default, to being aware I was in autopilot mode and making positive adjustments became shorter.
Over time — and by time I mean a period of years — I managed to shorten the awareness to an instantaneous change. I can catch myself defaulting to negative patterns and adjust on the fly immediately.
Your Mind Is A Change Maker
Thought observation and management is a habit, a muscle I work out every day of my life still today as I write this fifteen years later since I first began the practice.
I still experience frequent reminders of how important this is, and in particular how powerful our minds are.
In the days following the US election after Donald Trump claimed victory, I continued to experience palpitations — the extra heart beats.
The palpitations occurred most frequently when lying down on the couch, in the exact same position as I was in while watching the election coverage.
Since they came more frequently than I had experienced ever before, I became concerned something was wrong.
After a night of interrupted sleep due to anxiety and palpitations, I had to do something. I was staying in San Diego right near a hospital, and although wary of the cost of the American health system, I headed to the ER.
It was early Friday morning. The hospital was not busy, so I was quickly seen to. My blood pressure was taken, and then I was hooked up to a heart monitor to get a reading.
As I lay there on the bed, waiting for the doctor to arrive, my anxiety was up. Then the door opened and the doctor came in.
As he began to talk to me the heart palpitations kicked in even more regularly. He told me what I already knew — the kind of heart palpitations I was experiencing were harmless. We even laughed as I experienced them over and over again as he explained what they were.
It was during this moment that I was once again reminded in a powerful way how sensitive the body is to how you think.
Nothing had changed other than an elevation of the fear I was experiencing as the doctor entered the room and began to talk to me. Consequently, my sensitive heart reacted physically, adding extra beats as a reaction to my state of mind and emotion.
After completing a blood test to be extra sure everything was okay, I was given the all clear.
The heart palpitations immediately stopped.
As I walked home I felt two sensations…
- Embarrassed. I had let my fear run away yet again to the point that I had to go to hospital.
- Empowered. If I could do this to my body with fear, imagine what I can do with my mind if I aligned it wholly as a force for positive outcomes for me and other people.
What started as a stress reaction to the US election, then became a physical symptom due to a pattern of fearful thoughts followed by a short visit to the ER, led to a significant reminder of the power of my mind.
Don’t Underestimate Your Thoughts
I came across an article on FastCompany.com that presents some research about how your brain ‘deletes’ connections between neurons to make space for new pathways so you can learn new things.
You’ve probably heard before that your brain is wired to reinforce patterns. The more you think about something or practice an activity, the stronger that way of thinking and acting becomes.
This is why repeated practice leads to improved performance. Your brain cements what you repeat.
While you sleep your brain deletes connections to make space for new connections. This is why it’s critical you get good sleep, without it, you don’t make space in your brain to learn new things.
How the brain chooses what to delete is based on use. What you think about repeatedly will get stronger. What you stop thinking about will be marked for deletion, and eventually removed while you sleep.
Here’s a quote from the article…
BE MINDFUL OF WHAT YOU’RE MINDFUL OF
You actually have some control over what your brain decides to delete while you sleep. It’s the synaptic connections you don’t use that get marked for recycling. The ones you do use are the ones that get watered and oxygenated. So be mindful of what you’re thinking about.
Now you can see why it’s so important to become aware of thought patterns and frameworks you repeat every day that are not serving you.
You must practice thought observation and change, so you can replace fear based negative patterns with positive empowering beliefs and actions.
Your brain will work with what you give it. What you focus on becomes your reality, so make the choice to focus on what you want and begin to create the positive changes you want in your life.
I’ll be there doing the same right along with you.