“The energy of the mind is the essence of life,” said Aristotle.
As a fellow Greek (on a mission to change minds and brains and lives for the better), I couldn’t agree more with this perspective.
Not to mention, science has now proved what ancient Greek philosophers have been saying all along: Our mind is powerful, and having a healthy relationship with it affects not just the health of our body but also our performance, our happiness, and our relationships.
But what about those times when we feel worried and anxious, and we turn to people we trust for reassurance, and they tell us:
“Take a chill pill. You have nothing to worry about—it’s all in your mind!”
Every May, we honor Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year’s official theme is anxiety, as its prevalence is at an all-time high.
More than 60 percent of us feel more anxious today than before the pandemic, although only a third of us will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in our lifetime.
However, when our response to feeling anxious is “it’s all in your mind,” it can potentially, over time, lead to an anxiety disorder.
So, let me share with you a recent client case (with their permission) that justifies placing the conventional belief of “it’s all in your mind” in the series of toxic myths that burn us out. And what we may want to keep in mind (pun intended) this mental health awareness month to safeguard ours from worry and anxiety
The other day I got an SOS call from a client feeling distressed and anxious about her relationship. (Let’s call her Mary).
I was surprised because, for the better part of this last year, she told me that her relationship with this person (let’s call him Tom) had been one of the most pleasurable parts of her life.
When we met, she explained her problem:
Lately and seemingly out of the blue, Tom had been bringing up concerns about feeling lower and lower on her priority list. Mary does travel 80 percent of the time for work, has kids, family, and friends to attend to, and enjoys a little alone time watching TV. But Mary defended her case by telling me how Tom is the first person she sees when she returns to town; she frequently surprises him with unique, meaningful gifts and even took time off work to be there for him during a medical procedure.
His concerns were adding unnecessary anxiety to her full plate because, as she expressed in frustration:
“What Tom’s worried about is not real. It’s all in his mind!”
But is it?
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” ~ Mark Twain
The Problem with Thinking “It’s All in Our Mind”
If you’ve been following my Toxic Myths that Burn Us Out series, you already know how conventionally held beliefs (that misguide the attention of our mind) can shift our brain from its calm, responsive state to its compromised fight, flee, or freeze mode.
And when our brain operates from this defensive mode, our relational and problem-solving abilities go offline temporarily, which makes it difficult to respond kindly to any requests for adjustments.
But just because our mind is so powerful doesn’t mean we should blame it for all our worries, anxieties, and fears.
Why? Well, because this perspective:
>> Alienates us from one of our best allies against anxiety, our mind.
>> Prevents us from uncovering the deeper cause of worries so that we can tend to our vulnerabilities.
>> Misdirects our energy to fight, flee, or freeze, inadvertently disconnecting us from one of the most potent anxiety relievers: human connection
Besides, let’s face it. Our worries, anxieties, and fears are not all in our minds.
They’re also in our bodies:
>> In the intricate networks of our nervous system. In the way past experiences have shaped our brain’s negative bias, constantly trying to predict and forecast things that may go wrong for our protection.
>> In the tightness we feel in our chest when our partner misses our bids for connection.
>> In the pit in our stomach when we feel disconnected from the person we rely on for support during times of trouble.
>> In the tension in our shoulders when we give our best in a relationship (or even a work project) and it’s not appreciated.
>> In the pain we feel in our hearts when we get ghosted by a loved one and wonder why or if we’ll ever feel seen and valued.
Our fears and anxieties are very much embodied and integrated into our nervous system, and from a different perspective, they’re here to protect us from getting hurt again.
But the good news is that although they are not all in our mind, our mind can open the door to our ability to get in the way of anxious reactions that mess with our mental health and relationships and prevent us from living our life on our terms.
What we Need to Protect Ourselves from Anxiety
According to mentalhealth.org, “Our mental health includes our emotional, psychological well-being and affects how we think, feel, act, and how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”
We often think our mind and our brain are the same, but they’re not. They’re two distinct and powerful parts of us. They each have unique jobs to perform and they also work together to support us to do well in life.
Your brain is one of the most powerful systems known to man.
Like your computer’s hardware, it manages what your 37 trillion cells do to keep you in perfect balance (homeostasis) so you can kick butt as you navigate life’s ups and downs.
Your mind, though, is the equivalent of your brain’s software. As I learned from neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel, your mind regulates energy and information flow.
And it makes sense, considering our brain is harbored safely inside our skulls. It relies on stored memories and the meaning our mind gives to what our senses pick up to determine what kind of support we need. How our mind interprets what happens directs our brain’s energy and functions, which then elicit emotions and reactions to improve the odds of meeting our needs and the demands of life so we remain safe from threats.
The catch-22 is that our brain believes everything our mind thinks. That means that if our mind is stressing about things that we’re worried may happen (which is what anxiety is), our brain believes that what we’re worried about is happening right now.
It then launches our defensive fight or flight response—and then it’s game over.
We no longer have access to our hard-earned relational skills, and we may shut down our partners when they bravely share their fears with us by telling them, “It’s all in your mind!”
But here’s something else to keep in mind.
Although our brain and past experiences shape our mind (which can lead to anxious thoughts), our mind shapes our brain. Neuroscience research has shown that where we place our mind’s attention can change our brain favorably. This is called neuroplasticity.
So, the question is, is there a different way to relate to our mind instead of blaming it for our internal discomfort by thinking, “It’s all in our mind?”
How to Work with our Mind (Instead of Blaming it) to Relieve Anxiety
Mindfulness is a fabulous way to relate to anxious thoughts so they don’t become an anxiety disorder.
And if you’re thinking, “I’ve tried mindfulness meditation, and it doesn’t work for me,” well, that too is just a thought.
Perhaps you’ll consider changing your mind about it?
From a more practical sense, as Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield has described, mindfulness is the practice of “training your mind like a puppy to come, sit and stay here in the present moment.”
Take a moment to check in with yourself, and you may notice that what’s making you feel anxious is that your mind’s wandering to consider what may go wrong in the future because of what happened in the past.
Training your mind to work for you is about becoming the non-judgmental observer of your mind’s activity and boosting your ability to reel it back into the present moment. Over time, this helps us avoid getting overwhelmed by worrisome thoughts.
And there’s more good news about mindfulness:
>> It’s a practice; it doesn’t require perfection.
>> It turns challenges, problems, and stressors into your mind-fitness gym.
>> You don’t need a formal mindfulness practice to train your mind to work for you to stop an anxious reaction.
There are so many simple, everyday ways we can practice mindfulness. Far from being a mystical practice for enlightened folks, it’s more about offering our mind something else to do instead of hosting anxieties and fears about things that may or may not happen.
A recent Cornell University study showed that 85 percent of what we worry about doesn’t happen. So, why not engage your mind with some short tasks that give it a break?
Some ideas are: journaling, mind-mapping, naming emotions, visualizations, counting your breaths, gratitude or self-compassion practices, and listening to music. (Did you know that the song “Weightless” by Marconi Union effectively reduces anxiety by 65 percent?)
But if I was to pick one, reframing is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to build your muscle of mindfulness.
Its origin is the work of another fellow Greek who formulated a series of questions (Socratic questioning) to logically examine the validity of ideas and uncover new perspectives to solving problems.
To make it relevant, here are two of the questions I asked Mary:
>> What about Tom’s concern makes you feel anxious?
>> Is there a different way to look at what Tom said?
These questions cannot be answered by the reptilian brain (limbic), who’s in charge when we’re in fight or flight mode. So, our brilliant, evolved brain (neocortex) comes back online, filling our minds with new possibilities.
In Mary’s case, these questions helped her pinpoint what was causing her anxiety: her mind’s interpretation was that her partner’s complaint was a sign that she was falling short.
Once she freed her mind from that limiting belief, she discovered many positive and empowering perspectives and solutions.
>> Tom cared enough about her to share his fears and vulnerabilities.
>> He was giving her access to his inner world by offering clues about what makes him feel like a priority and what doesn’t. (Hello, intimacy!)
>> He had enough faith in her and their relationship to rewrite old relationship patterns where he felt hurt and taken for granted.
She also identified a pretty “easy fix” that was an oversight on her part. Earlier in their relationship, Tom disclosed to her that he gets worried when he doesn’t hear back from someone he cares about; this was due to flashbacks from an unfortunate situation when someone he loved who didn’t respond actually died. Although Mary had reassured him she’d be mindful of that and at least send him a quick “Hi, I’m busy,” she realized that she had let life get in the way and hadn’t kept up with that commitment.
But with an open mind free from anxiety, she reframed her mishap as a reminder of her power in co-regulating her partner’s emotional state, and making him feel like he’s high on her priority list.
As we’re navigating this crazy post-pandemic life with so many health, political, and socio-economic threats on the horizon, feeling anxious is inevitable.
However, ending up with an anxiety disorder and burning out is optional.
Although many things in the world (and inside of us) can cause us to worry, there are as many antidotes that alleviate anxiety. And relationships are at the top of that list.
Our mental health is tightly linked and highly dependent on healthy relationships.
But you know how they say, “Great relationships start with you?” From my perspective, there’s no relationship as important as our relationship with our minds.
When we avoid blaming our mind for feeling anxious by thinking, “It’s all in your mind,” everything changes.
Our mind becomes our BFF, our heart becomes peaceful, and anxiety no longer gets in the way of living on our own terms.
And with such a powerful ally by your side, it becomes much easier to relate healthily to our emotions, work, friends, kids, primary partner, dreams and aspirations, and even to the crazy world we all share.