Negativity Bias, Running Late, Anxiety, and Mindfulness

I woke up to my alarm for the 2nd time that morning feeling groggy. It was two hours earlier than I normally would wake on a Friday, and yet I was running late; whoever invented the snooze alarm is an evil genius. I hate running late, though it’s a situation I often find myself in. My mind began to focus on some solutions to my time problem: just have some cereal for breakfast, skip a shower, move faster, and eat faster…things like that. I sped into to the kitchen to make breakfast and discovered there was no coffee in the house. Who’s supposed to function in the wee hours of the morning without coffee? A friend needed a ride to an important appointment and I needed to make sure they got there on time. And with each misstep that morning I could feel the tension increasing in my traps, and the need to move faster. Unfortunately while operating at this pace I was making more mistakes, wasting valuable time. And then, I couldn’t find the keys. The tension was overwhelming. My mind started racing through worst-case scenarios. What if they missed their appointment because I hit the snooze, or couldn’t find my keys? That would be my fault, and would make me a terrible friend. And what would happen to them? The tension in my traps felt more intense and spread throughout my body, my jaw got tight. I felt like I couldn’t contain it. “Damnit” I shouted in frustration…Anxiety is a powerful force.

Fast forward to an hour later. I drove to my friend’s place and got to them on time. Traffic was light that morning and I dropped them off at their appointment with 20 minutes to spare. All of those catastrophe scenarios my mind generated suddenly seemed so silly in retrospect. I could breathe, my trapezius muscles could soften, I could finally relax and was on my way to getting myself a well-earned cup of coffee. In reflection it is pretty easy to see that my response to anxiety that morning was not very helpful except for causing me some distress.

Breaking down this situation: here’s how much anxiety I would like to have felt given the totality of the situation.

JS hits MW slow mo

And here’s how much anxiety I experienced.

MW hits JS

Ah the absurdity of being human.

JS MW Laugh

That morning I was not very mindful. I disconnected from the present moment and allowed my mind to pull me into worries of the future, and ponder catastrophes yet to happen. It also pulled me towards the past with my critical mind, “if you only didn’t press that snooze button you wouldn’t be running late. Why didn’t you check to see if there was coffee yesterday?” My mind went to blaming. “If you weren’t making so many stupid decisions in the past, you wouldn’t be in this position now. If my friend didn’t need a ride, I wouldn’t be in this mess.” I also allowed my feelings to control me, reacting to the powerful hormones of anxiety by hurrying up, getting into flight mode.

We humans have a negativity bias. We naturally connect with experiences and thoughts that tell us that we are in danger more than ones that tell us we’re OK. Danger can mean many things: for our ancestors that could’ve meant a large predator in the wilderness. In the modern era danger can be a car rolling through a stop sign, a fight with our partner, a work deadline, or running late for a meeting. Evolutionary psychologists call our propensity to be on guard for danger the false alarm effect. A great way to think about this process is like having an internal fire (danger) alarm. If a fire-alarm is extra sensitive and it goes off when it’s not supposed to it can be a nuisance at worst, but it doesn’t place your survival at risk. If a fire alarm isn’t sensitive enough and it fails to alert you to a fire, your survival is at stake. Thus it makes sense that we evolved to have a more sensitive alarm for danger instead of a dull one. When our alarms go off, regardless if the danger is due to a large jungle cat, fire, or running late, our fight-or-flight response activates increasing physical tension and narrowing the focus of our minds.

Complicating matters is the fact that the mind is a compelling story-teller. It tells us stories all throughout the day. Sometimes it daydreams ridiculous stories of possessing magical powers, or rehearses the big meeting coming up. Other times, it likes to catastrophize, magnify, minimize, judge and blame. It can weave tales of black and white about a rainbow. It told me I was a bad friend because I hit a snooze alarm, it told me that for sure my mistakes would cause my friend to miss court. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we say that when our mind tells us a story changes our perception of reality we have fused with that thought. When you disconnect from that thought, it is called defusion.

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That morning I fused with the story that “I am running late, I need to move faster.” And I reacted to that fusion with anxiety. Common physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, tension, gastrointestinal issues, tingling, numbness, sweating, clenching, panic and/or goosebumps. Typical psychological symptoms of anxiety include: racing thoughts, worry, catastrophic thinking, self-criticism, poor self-confidence, apprehension, problems with decision making, and/or fear. Some of the common behavioral reactions to anxiety include: avoidance through distraction, substances, staying away from reminders of the anxiety, suppressing thoughts, or substance use. Other reactions to anxiety include rushing, pacing, nervous laughter, combativeness, or working extra hard to compensate for the feelings of anxiety.

In essence, our minds are prone to seeing the world in a more negative light, restricting our focus from seeing other perspectives, create stories that may enhance those negative perceptions, and then in response to believe the stories your mind tells you your body releases a series of hormones which make it more difficult to defuse from the story. Suddenly you get a vicious-self feeding cycle. That morning I rushed through my morning routine due to anxiety, and as a result I made more errors, which led to an increase of the anxiety. I was so focused on the negative that I couldn’t see the blanket truth happening in the world around me.


So how do we manage our minds when they combine negativity bias and compelling stories? Well for starters we can stop minding our minds. With mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other mindbody practices we can learn to take the observer role, learn how to ground, notice that thoughts and feelings can be inaccurate and they happen automatically. When we develop such skills we develop the power to choose which thoughts and feelings we want to engage with, and how we want to react to them. Mindfulness is an active practice that can be used throughout your lifespan. Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all that means we can achieve a state of being that removes us from human paradoxes and drama, but it helps a lot.

Other ways of managing mindbody reactions include taking active self-care to reduce our psychological vulnerability to unhelpful frames of mind. When our mindbodies are in peak health they adapt to stressors with more flexibility, creativity and ease. Peak health is often achieved by having good nutrition, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, feeling safe and secure, relaxation, managing stress, and satisfying our social, psychological, and physiological needs. When I gave my friend a ride that morning, I was sleep deprived and I also did not participate in exercise that week. Those factors made me more vulnerable to having an intense anxiety reaction compared to when I experience similar stressors of running late when I’m well rested and exercise regularly throughout the week.

Today we explored some of the nature of anxiety. The human mindbody is sensitive towards danger signals, and responds by activating our fight-or-flight system. Additionally the mind is a compelling story teller and it can tell us tales of disaster, judgment, or catastrophe. And when we aren’t in peak health conditions we’re more vulnerable to unhelpful frames of mind. Anxiety is experienced through physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses. Mindfulness activities, stress management, and self-care can help us manage our responses to our internal systems and give use more power to choose how we want to react to what is happening in the here and now. Thank you for taking the time to read this article dear reader. Until next time, farewell.

ACT and Ants

ant

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it’s important to make committed actions based on your values. And just before writing this, I was thinking about the sacredness of life and how it’s so important to protect. But suddenly in the kitchen there was a swarm of ants, and I wanted nothing more than to commit a mass genocide via chemical warfare. That’s the tricky thing about values, they are flexible and they can change moment to moment.

And that’s a huge challenge right? The me of 30 seconds before seeing the swarm had a really different perspective on the sanctity of life than the version of me facing the swarm. ACT promotes ongoing non-judgmental contact with internal and external environmental events as they occur, so I can observe and describe the experience of homicidal rage towards ants –I experience muscle tension, it’s a hot energy, my mind blames of the ants for not having a nice apartment, and it presents images as borax- as ongoing internal events. Meanwhile my external environment I see thousands of ants working in dangerous conditions to try to bring food back to their family, a dirty counter top, and notice that it’s 70 degrees in the apartment. I didn’t notice the calming feeling of the air until I took that time to step back and ask myself “what’s happening in this moment?”

ACT also teaches that we should accept reality for what it is, without avoidance if we can. My rage towards the blasted ants won’t change the fact that there are no potted plants inside my home (even though my partner and I removed them because they kept building colonies inside them), it will only serve to feed my rage and take me away from present moment awareness. If I look at the facts, the fact is, there are a bunch of ants clinging to the free food left for them like good scavengers, and I am experiencing the desire that they would not be here.

ACT also teaches the concept of cognitive defusion, which is a fancy way of saying recognizing that my unhelpful thoughts are just thoughts, and not necessarily reality. My experience of such a thought in this moment comes from the weighty experience of judgment labeling myself a murderer and therefor a bad person for the act of ant-homicide I’m about to commit. But labeling myself as a potential murderer and a bad person doesn’t help me at all, it just serves to create my own set of psychic torture. I can be someone who both respects the sanctity of life in one moment, and wants to end life of a different species I’ve labeled as vermin the next moment. My mindbody has the ability to hold these two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas or even behaviors – I am a healer after all – and I don’t need to label things in an all-or-nothing context.

Another tenant of ACT is recognizing the self as context. I’m the territorial creature who wants to protect my home. I’m also a moral thinking creature that wants to act in the best manner. I also exist in a culture where extermination of other creatures by chemical warfare is totally legit. I also recognize that though I exist in such a culture, I need not engage by my cultures rules given that historically most cultures tend to get some things wrong when it comes interpersonal or inter-species relations. When I take time to look at myself in different contexts, I can see why I can have seemingly conflicting motivations.

How I choose to respond to the hoard of ants in my home, whether via chemical warfare, cleaning, or some other method, is up to me. If I connect with the present moment, my values, see myself in the context I exist in, engage in cognitive defusion, accept reality for what it is and then make a committed action based on my awareness of those factors, I can make my best choice possible that is true to me and my values. These 6 factors are the basis of Acceptance Commitment Therapy and aid in developing cognitive flexibility, accepting the bad, good, and everything in between, and living by our own values.