Updated: Jan 12, 2018
By Todd Pressman, Ph.D.
There is no shortage of advice on how to get free of anxiety and stress—everything from taking deep breaths to snapping rubber bands on your wrist. The problem is, most don't make any lasting change. But those that do all have one thing in common. This is the single most important thing you need to know to get free of anxiety and stress.
The idea is this: What you think determines what you see. It sounds so simplistic that it seems almost ridiculous, but stay with me. What you think LITERALLY shapes your entire experience of life. And when you are anxious or stressed, if you don't get your hands on the thoughts that are behind it, you won't get any relief.
Let's understand this concept in more depth: Imagine a banquet table with a beautiful feast laid out upon it. Two people come along...one is starving to the point of near death and the other has consciously undertaken a fast for spiritual purposes. This same banquet table looks completely different to each of these two people. Our thoughts determine what we see. Similarly, think about a time when you believed a friend had slighted you. Suddenly, they become your enemy, you are noticing all their faults and judging them accordingly. They even look physically different to you. Then you discover they did not, in fact, say what you thought they had said. The entire perception drops away and you see your dear friend again, perhaps glowing more brightly than before. One more example: remember a time when you were house hunting or car shopping? Did you notice how the “for sale” signs jumped out at you from everywhere or the model of car you were interested in started showing up all over the road?
Let's watch this process in action. Pictures a series of dots:
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Now see them as four squares, each square composed of four dots. Notice how “real” and fixed this perception becomes! Now imagine four larger overlapping squares, each square composed of nine dots. We can make a cross, two columns, or any of an incredible variety of forms and patterns of relationships, all according to the thoughts we choose to think.
How do we apply this to the problem of anxiety and stress? By being vigilant with the thoughts we are thinking, and refusing to think those thoughts which cause the problem. We may choose any thoughts that don't produce stress or anxiety. But here's the challenging part: We are so convinced that our circumstances and the events outside of us cause our upset that we never get around to testing this idea. Choosing different thoughts about a situation actually requires great courage; the courage to move against the traditional thinking we have been thoroughly indoctrinated into. But if we want to escape our anxiety and stress, there is no other way. Choose different thoughts than those you've been thinking and your problem will literally change in your perception. At the least, you will see it as a problem which can now be managed; calmly. Often, it transforms into something else entirely or disappears altogether.
So there you have it...the great secret to happiness. And indeed it is. But as a psychologist and life coach, it's my job to help people apply this principle in a way that works. If a person takes on this practice with great courage, honesty and perseverance, they will see truly miraculous changes occur. But because we're so conditioned to believe we are not in control of our thoughts, it's often not enough to say “I'm simply going to think differently about this”. Instead, we must use skillful means to trick our minds into thinking different thoughts. These are the tools and techniques I discuss in my books, CDs and seminars, and they're powerful enough to uproot any fearful thought at its source. In the end, though, they are all variations on how to get at the one great truth that only our thoughts determine what we see—how we feel and the entire experience we have of whatever is going on around us. This truth, in fact, holds the power of the universe, since the universe itself is but the experience that comes from our chosen thoughts.
So to truly uproot the fears in the unconscious that source our stress and anxiety, we want to engage in a serious practice of the kind I describe in my trainings. But until then, you can begin to see real results with this practice: Start to notice and then doubt your certainty that what is going on “out there” is making you feel and think the way you do. Then, simply, begin training your mind to choose different thoughts about the situation...any thoughts at all that are not about stress or anxiety. The problem will be that as you try to choose different thoughts, you will quickly be seduced by the anxiety into thinking what you have always thought in the past. This is where we have to bring forth our commitment. You will need to sustain your effort to think different thoughts about the situation for a long enough period (perhaps a couple of minutes) to see your old perception let go of its hold. Everytime you want to think “Yes, but let's get real...that thing out there really is scary or stressful” you have to renew your commitment to getting free. There's no way around it...our thoughts DO create our experience. Which experience would you choose: fear or joy?