Reality Check: Holding on to Your Keys

Of the clever book titles I’ve found, “People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them The Keys” by Dr. Mike Bechtle is among the catchiest.
Bechtle clearly identifies that there are some things we can change and other things that we can’t. The fact that he titled a chapter, “Stop Yelling at the Toaster Oven” will give you a general idea of his suggestions.
Sam has anxiety. He has seen himself as an anxious person for so long, he can’t imagine not feeling at least a little anxious.
When all is going smoothly and according to routine, Sam functions reasonably well. However if anything pops up that he perceives as being threatening, he goes into turmoil, imagining only the worst possible outcomes.
When Sam’s boss said, “Come see me before you go home tonight,” Sam spent the whole day worrying. “I must have done something wrong. What if I get fired? How will I pay my rent? Who will take my cat?”
His palms sweat, his face flushes, and his stomach churns. He can’t concentrate. He won’t talk to anyone because he suspects that everyone knows something that he doesn’t. He sees people in conversation; they are certainly gossiping about him! He starts resenting them. They were never really his friends anyway.” And that’s how Sam’s thoughts go.
As you can imagine, Sam gets no work done the rest of the day. Finally, quitting time approaches, and despite the shakes and the sinking feeling, Sam goes to see the boss and hears, “Oh, thanks Sam. I was wondering if you’d like to join the bowling team.”
Sam is speechless. All day long, he imagined elaborate scenarios, all of which ended with him being homeless, jobless, and friendless. But now, he still has a job, still has a home, and might even make some friends on the team. Who could have seen that coming?
Sam could not have known what the boss was going to say. There are many things we don’t know or can’t control. However, one thing Sam does know now is that he wasted one whole precious day of his life agonizing over something that had no connection to reality.
It’s easy to identify when we’ve fretted time away in an unhelpful way after the fact. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get ourselves out of a state of anxiety when we don’t know what the future holds.
However, Sam saw what happened to him over the course of that day, and has decided he wants to make a change.
Bechtel offers some suggestions for managing thoughts and emotions, one of which is “Pay attention to our thoughts.”
When you detect that your emotions are leading you down a path that you know from experience is not helpful, pay attention to your thoughts. Is the threat that’s causing your anxiety a real threat? Or are your emotions leading your thoughts, like a haphazardly-moving emotional kite pulling you along by a string?
It’s not easy to stop thinking about something, but we can replace thoughts with other thoughts.
Next time, rather than letting his thoughts wander all around, “What if?” anxious Sam could instead choose to focus intently on his work for the day. The time will pass regardless; he may as well be productive.
Sam could also change his actions; instead of avoiding his co-workers, he could make a deliberate effort to have conversations.
If Sam believes, “I can’t stop thinking about…” he is giving up the keys to his thoughts instead of holding on to them himself.
When Sam deliberately chooses thoughts and actions, he takes a step toward getting himself back in his own driver’s seat, more in charge and in control over his life.

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