‘It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black.’ – The Rolling Stones
Epictetus, a first century Greek philosopher, claimed that it is not reality itself that shapes our feelings and actions, but rather the way we view reality. Thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to behaviours. This process is in-built in us all and, when it has worked well, has protected countless generations of human beings from danger. It enables a ‘flight or fight’ response. However, it doesn’t work well when I convince myself of a distorted view of reality.
I was reminded of the power of my mind to be in charge of my feelings and subsequent behaviour by an incident in a cinema, in which I acted on the basis of a false reality I had created for myself. I had become engrossed in a film. When the film had finished, my mind was full of thoughts about the film. It had left me feeling sad. I got up from my seat, walked to the end of the row and there, genuflected to the screen!
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people in our world have suffered damage to their mental health as well as enduring terrible physical suffering. Fear, heartbreak and worry have swept like a tsunami through the lives of countless people, increasing their levels of stress and anxiety. The London Jesuit Centre suggested a workshop on ’Dealing with Anxiety’, which has proved popular and helpful, and has been repeated as the online dates successively sold out.
Disproportionate anxiety and stress are often the result of the lens through which we view and understand the world around us, and in particular how we interpret our experiences. My thoughts shape my feelings, which in turn determine my behaviour. Inaccurate thoughts, my ‘self-talk’, can often lead to damaging, very distressing feelings, and these feelings, in turn, are the deciding factor in how I live my life.
Fortunately, there are skills that can be taught and learned which can help people escape these exaggerated or distorted views of reality and instead see the world as it really is. It is quite possible to notice the things I say to myself, and which are often said over and over again in my mind. When I learn how to identify my self-talk and expose these thoughts, I may well be surprised by the unreal views of reality I have been feeding to myself.
An unhealthy cognitive diet fuels unhealthy feelings. Hence, terrible feelings of anxiety ensue, out of all proportion to the challenges I face. One very helpful solution is to change my diet! Instead of untrue, unreal thoughts, I can learn how to nourish myself with healthy, truthful, accurate thinking. As
I do so and as these new life-giving thoughts take root in my mind, they gradually replace the unhealthy, unreal thoughts that have been responsible for the damaging anxiety shaping my life.
‘The wind was against them now, and Piglet’s ears streamed behind him like banners as he fought his way along, and it seemed hours before he got them into the shelter of Hundred Acre Wood and they stood up straight again, to listen, a little nervously, to the roaring of the gale among the treetops.
“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh, after careful thought.’
(Winnie the Pooh, A.A Milne)
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