Stop the Cascade, Before it Stops You
Charles F. Glassman, MD, FACP – Coach MD
A popular motivational speaker spoke in front of a large crowd. After he was finished, a group gathered in front of him for a brief question and answer period.
He fielded questions and finally turned to a woman on his left and asked what her question was. Her half-minute or so of questioning startled everyone with its intensity and apparent hostility. The speaker calmly put up his hand to get her to stop. She blushed, but fell silent. Said the speaker: Ma'am, I feel uncomfortable with the the way you are conducting yourself, and I can’t continue
Her embarrassment turned to anger, as her face contorted, lips pursed, and eyes squinted. The two stood frozen in front on each other, as the others looked on. Breaking the silence, the speaker asked the woman, "What were you thinking when you approached me?" She quickly replied, "That you would think I am foolish and my questions idiotic." He asked, "How did that make you feel toward me?" She blurted, "It made me think you are conceited, and I began disliking you…immensely!" He looked her directly in the eyes and said, "You created how I was going to respond to you even before I had a chance to respond. And your creation was the result of thoughts about me that were completely manufactured. Your beginning, middle, and end were laid out for you even before I had a chance."
That did the trick. Humbly she asked, "Can we rewind?"
In this instance, the woman was given a second chance, but in life, we often don’t get a second chance. Instead, when an unpleasant event happens (a car cuts us off, say, or we hear a tragic news story, or we have an argument with someone) the vulnerability it creates makes us feel uncomfortable. Immediately, the brain goes to a place of earlier discomfort. It could be related to money (a debt we owe or bills we’re struggling with), or health (we haven’t been exercising enough, worry about a new pain in the neck), or relationships (why doesn’t she respect me more?). If the thoughts stopped there, we might have a chance. But if my brain is typical, they don’t. What starts with one isolated worry becomes a barrage of thoughts about unpleasant circumstances in our life.
In the above story, the trouble began when the woman felt vulnerable, or even threatened, by the speaker. That set off a cascade of unpleasant thoughts that led inexorably to her hostile behavior toward him. It’s the kind of thing that can happen to any of us in dealing with our children, our spouse, our boss, or maybe someone we owe money to. We want relations with others to be non-confrontational, but the cascade of thoughts makes that unlikely.
The way I see it, when we find ourselves caught up in a maelstrom of negative thoughts directed at a particular person or circumstance, we have probably been triggered by something completely unrelated. Something has made us feel threatened or vulnerable and our automatic brain creates thoughts and behaviors that distract us from the main event. This transference is just a way to fight or flee the real issue.
When we find one thought depending on the next for support, alarms should go off. This is a time to distract yourself before the thoughts continue to cascade. If you’re in the car, resist the urge to turn on talk radio or the news, and instead tune to a music station. If you’re at work, direct yourself to a project or set a goal for the day. If you have free time, get out into nature—walk, jog, ride a bike.
Identifying the main event trigger is not as important as stopping the cascade of negative thoughts. Because once they occur, we have no chance and they always end by messing things up. To give yourself the best chance at reaching a point that you truly need, want, and deserve, distract yourself when the self-defeating thoughts begin or when you start to feel hostility directed at someone else. Make it a point to include purposeful breathing in your efforts at distraction. Breathe in slowly for a count of five, hold for a count of two, and exhale for a count of five to seven. As you inhale, say in your mind, "There is no danger, there is no threat. I am safe." As you exhale, say, "I am breathing out the negative thoughts that have no place in my body or mind."
When we realize that our thoughts often sabotage our happiness, and that we aren’t required to believe, trust, or take direction from them, then we are well on our way toward creating the kind of life we want most.
He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Brain Drain, which helps explain and fix self-sabotage. It is the winner of the 2011 Independent Publisher's Award and 2011 Eric Hoffer Award as the best Self-Help and Health book, 2010 Pinnacle Book Award for best Self-Help Book, and 2009 LA Book Festival Best Spirituality Book.
To new subscribers on his website, he is now offering his free, new EBook, Destiny Diet. Weekly, Dr. Glassman hosts Medicine on the Cutting Edge, which gives a voice to pioneers in medical research and development. Dr. Glassman lives with his family in Rockland County, NY.
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