Perception and Conditioning

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Photo by David Boatwright

It may seem there is no rhyme or reason to what precipitates a panic attack.  Some days, anxiety appears to creep up out of nowhere, often at the most inopportune times (not that there is any good time for a panic attack).  There are natural physiological reactions in the brain which contribute to negativity, depression, and anxiety.  However, there are some learned responses which also contribute, and unlearning them can be helpful in restoring your happiness.

Anticipation is typically associated with a positive event.  For instance, we look forward to spending the holidays with our family, or an upcoming wedding or graduation, with anticipation.  There are two components to anticipation: perception and conditioning.  Our perceptions begin to develop in early childhood and conditioning reinforces these ideas throughout our lifetime.  If an early perception is negative and nothing ever happens to alter that perception, as adults we may experience anxiety when presented with similar ideas or events.

Going to the dentist is a fairly common source of anxiety for many adults.  However, the person who had regular cleanings as a child is less likely to feel anxious than somebody who only saw the dentist when they had a toothache.  Likewise, the child who was told, “You’re being very brave” is going to have a different experience than the one who was told, “Quit being such a baby.”  As adults, we try to rationalize with ourselves — we know we’ll be fine, we know the dentist is a trained professional, and yet there is still a “this is awful” feeling in the pit of our stomach.  This is the perception aspect of anticipation.

Consider a young child who spills a drink and is told, “You’re so clumsy!  Look at the mess you’ve made!”  Perhaps the story is then repeated, “We were having a good time until he spilled his drink.”  The perception has now been created for the child, and reinforcement – or conditioning – has begun.

People who spill their drinks are clumsy and messy; therefore I am clumsy and messy.

I ruined everyone’s day by spilling my drink.

This is how a common event such as a spilling a drink becomes over-important.  Life is messy and spills happen, to children and adults alike.  There are people who, even as children, can spot the blown-out-of-proportion-ness of some adult reactions and grow up unaffected.  But the depressive brain is predisposed to absorbing negativity and feeding it back to us throughout our lives.  Even long after toxic relationships have ended, our brains replay the tapes over and over again.  This is conditioning; the reinforcement and repetition of self-defeating thoughts which are fed to us by others and ourselves.  As adolescents and adults, these messages become a source of anxiety.  We may skip out on social occasions because we think, “I’ll just end up embarrassing myself and ruining everybody’s day.”  In other words, we have learned bad things not only happen to us, but because of us.

Have you ever had one of those days where you felt you couldn’t do anything right?  Maybe it started with a bad hair day or you burned breakfast.  Then you got reprimanded at work or school over some mistake.  Some people have the gift of isolating these incidents, but for others, the brain pairs each incident with an earlier perception, bundling them all into one reverberating theme: I am a loser.  It is therefore crucial to remember two very important truths:

Your brain will lie to you.

You can retrain your brain.

Learn to isolate incidents.  It can be easy to look at life like a big bowl of spaghetti, with people and events intertwined.  Everyone and everything becomes tainted by a few negative comments or events.  Try thinking WAFFLES.  Keep a notebook handy and track what happens throughout the course of the day – both the good and the bad.  Instead of looking at the day as one collective bummer, consider it as a series of incidents, some good and some bad, but each independent of the others in its own little waffle square.

Counter-punch those negatives.  For each bad thing, identify a good thing that happened.  On a particularly challenging day, your good thing may be to simply acknowledge at least it didn’t get worse or at least the day is nearly over.  That is okay!  You are still forcing your brain to spark up a positive reaction.

Identify and eliminate ‘always/never’ thinking.  As you chronicle your day, pay close attention to both internal and external messaging.  Do you have a parent who still claims you always do this or you never do that?  Do you say those things to yourself?  Write them down.  Then, at the end of the day when you can relax, rewrite each statement without the definitive.  Beware the definitive in disguise!  “I’m such a screw-up” has exactly the same meaning and effect as “I always screw things up.”  Capture these thoughts and reconstruct them.  For instance, “I’m lousy at my job” can be rewritten as “I messed up on that project, but now I understand my mistake and can do better next time.”

Taking control of your thoughts will strengthen those positive-thinking areas of the brain and reduce activity in the areas which feed into your depression and anxiety.  In time, you will learn to filter out the negative messaging around you, and live a happier and healthier life.

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