Dealing with Dangerous Words

My nerves have been frayed. Not sleeping soundly. My breathing has been shallow and my body has felt unsettled. In moments of calm, I search my iPhone for an email, a text, a photo, a song, I don’t know what.

Anx-i-e-ty: a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

SELF PORTRAIT – Male Holding Head in hands with stressful look

I’ve found the culprit. It’s two simple words that too often rule my thinking:

“What if…?”

They direct my thoughts to an imaginary future place void of benevolence or security.

Do you ever find yourself going there?

Several years ago a psychologist helped me realize the danger of these two words and my habit of using them. And then he suggested I read “Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think.”

Excerpts like this one from that book opened my eyes up to the implications of my habit:

Thoughts help define which mood we experience in a given situation. Once a mood is present, it is accompanied by additional thoughts that support and strengthen the mood. For example, angry people think about ways they have been hurt, depressed people think about how unfortunate life has become, and anxious people see danger everywhere. In fact, the stronger our moods, the more extreme our thinking is likely to be.

The authors, Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky, go on to point out that everyone experiences this at times, and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your thinking. But, they add, “when we feel intense moods, we’re more likely to distort, discount or disregard information that contradicts our moods and beliefs.” To change this pattern, you have to first recognize when it’s happening.

We often believe we can banish negative thinking by replacing it with positive thinking, but as Greenberger and Padesky note:

Most people who are anxious, depressed or angry can tell you that “just thinking positive thoughts” is not that simple. In fact, if we do try to think only positive thoughts when we have a strong mood, we may miss important signals that something is wrong.

That’s why they recommend striving for balanced thinking, paying attention to both the negative and positive information so you have a clearer understanding of the full picture.

And that’s why I’m re-committing to recognizing my thought patterns and shaping them with balanced thoughts. For example, when I wonder,

What if my plane crashes, or I get sick, or I let down a customer…

I will remind myself that I’ve been on other flights this bumpy, my body could fight a disease, and I’ve prepared well for this customer.

The authors state it plainly: “Although our thoughts influence mood, behavior and physical reactions, positive thinking is not a solution to life’s problems.” Balanced thinking, taking into account all the information we really have, help keep those dangerous words in check.

What dangerous words affect your mood, and how do you balance that thinking?



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  • Mike Norman
    December 10, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    This is good information for all of us particularly during this holiday season and end of year stuff. I feel like i get most anxious when I am not accomplishing something which gets harder at times in retirement. I was trying to get something done yesterday on the computer and I was having problems getting it to work. I was anxious and frustrated. I finally said my wife, I am going to the hospital to visit Larry. For me, it seems I need to get myself into action doing something that will give me that feeling that I am accomplishing something. I believe I was unconsciously going through a “balanced thinking” process that led me to this action/behavior. Again, I like your analysis of these things because it helps me identify why something is either working or not which then enables me to repeat the more productive behavior and the thinking that follows. Thanks.

    • Matt Norman
      December 13, 2014 at 5:53 pm

      Thank you for the comment, Dad. It’s a very real example of how inaction can create anxiety and how sometimes “doing” creates well-being.

  • Barbara Thorsen
    December 12, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Thanks, Matt. I appreciate the perspective of balancing positive and negative information input on any issue that is producing anxiety. A few years ago you shared advice that if one is fixated and anxious about a potential negative outcome, it can be helpful to contemplate the worst case scenario from said outcome and realistically consider whether or not one could handle that result. The odds are usually against worst case scenarios, and if it can be handled/avoided, that realization should reduce anxiety.

    • Matt Norman
      December 13, 2014 at 5:55 pm

      Thank you, Barbara, for adding that angle – a practical way to reduce anxiety.

  • Pat Griffin
    December 13, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks for your willingness to be authentic about the challenging issues that impact the quality of our lives.
    The combination of your insight and Mike’s example remind me of Dale’s 3-part suggestion to:
    1. Get all the facts.
    2. Weigh all the facts – then come to a decision.
    3. Once a decision is reached, act!
    Your writing is well composed and inspirational, Matt. Thank you for your consistency in publishing. Please keep it coming!

    • Matt Norman
      December 13, 2014 at 5:58 pm

      Thank you, Pat, for your encouragement! Appreciate you calling out Dale Carnegie’s suggestion to reduce worry.