I AM NEUROTIC.
I realise that’s a cliché, one of those labels the girl hurls at the guy during the break-up scene in a romantic comedy, but it actually means something specific about my brain – and your brain too, even if you’re not neurotic. In fact, according to a brash new psychological theory, the neurotic brain holds the key to what may be the most powerful change a man can make to increase his chances of finding health, happiness and success at work and in relationships. So what is this life-changing step? Facing your fears.
Bear with me. This isn’t what you think it is. We’ve all heard the same ripe script about facing your fears. All together now: scared of failure? Climb back on that horse! Terrified of rejection? Stare down those demons! Frightened of getting postered in the paint? Start throwing elbows! No. This is about facing something less obvious – but more insidious – than fear. It’s about facing the way you avoid fear and other negative emotions; how you distract yourself from them and how you comfort yourself in the face of them. It’s not unusual to feel some social anxiety at a big party. But do you dodge that anxiety by hitting the open bar four times in half an hour? Everybody feels work pressure. Do you vent that pressure by bad-mouthing the boss, or avoid it by taking a job beneath your capabilities? She’s the love of your life but sometimes she’s a little intense and you worry that it might all unravel. Do you respond by working late? Having an affair? Pretending you’re asleep? It all falls under the heading: avoiding the Problem.
The nature of your uneasy feelings is not the point here. This is about your tendency (and mine) to develop strategies to avoid those emotions rather than live with them. It doesn’t matter whether you’re texting a booty call or praying on your knees: if you’re doing something to escape having a feeling you don’t like, you will fear that feeling even more the next time around. And research shows that you will also lessen your chances of success in a host of measures of well-being, from health to work to relationships.
To tap this potential wellspring of life improvements, you need only commit to a fivestep action plan. Easy, right? But since each of these steps has its origins in neuroticism, understanding them all requires a tour (don’t fear, it will be brief) through the minds of people with mental woes by the freight load. People like me. Smirk if you must, but do read on. You might pick up a life skill that starts out feeling seriously strange and ends up feeling strangely serious.
THE WORRY SYNDROME
Allow me to tell you about the wretched ways of my people, the neurotic brotherhood. We have high levels of (1) negative mood, (2) introversion and (3) inhibition. You know those unguarded, fun-loving guys with easy smiles and jokes and pickup lines and cases of Red Bull running through their veins? Yes, I love those guys too. I’m pretty much the opposite.
It’s not as though we neurotics have bad attitudes on purpose. Our mental approach is a fixed trait. Brain-imaging studies show that we have too much output from the mental engine that governs moods and serious underperformance in the brain cubicles assigned to keeping strong feelings in check. That makes us leery about things going wrong because we aren’t looking forward to the intense feelings that follow. But being neurotic has its benefits, too. We are cautious. We don’t do drugs, we drive defensively and we don’t fall for scams (sometimes we don’t fall for legitimate deals, either). Since we see the absurdity in our ways we can be very funny. And since we always think we are about to die we can find it easy to be generous. But mostly being neurotic makes us scramble to avoid awkward feelings, through modifying our actions or our thoughts or both. And that’s where my pain can help you.
“I’ve studied anxiety all my career,” psychologist Dr David Barlow told an audience of mental health professionals at the Mayo Clinic in the United States. “But maybe what I’ve really been studying is not anxiety per se, but neuroticism, which is the tendency to view the world in a threatening, unpleasant kind of way.” Barlow wants to spread the message that learning to withstand the feelings that make us antsy may be the X factor that separates those who excel in life from those who don’t.
“Your ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotions is probably the broadest single psychological concept we know how to change, with the biggest impact that I know of,” says Dr Steven Hayes, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Reno and author of Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life (R194 Loot.co.za). “People’s willingness to sit with uncomfortable emotions and find some meaning in them – feeling, learning, moving on – predicts positive outcomes in their ability to lose weight, quit smoking, stick to an exercise programme, learn new software, do well at work and survive burnout. And it correlates with all these other things like reducing depression and anxiety.”
FIVE STEPS TO BANISH FEAR
David Barlow is a towering figure in psychology. He is a major contributor to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM – the bible of psychiatry and psychology – and a rigorous researcher of the effects and efficacy of therapy. So he’s not making an idle claim when he says that his five-factor standardised talk-therapy treatment could be a single remedy for all mood and anxiety disorders.
His method is known as the unified protocol (UP) for the transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders. In a preliminary study published in 2010 in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, Barlow and his colleagues used the unified protocol to treat 15 patients afflicted with the full basket of neurotic conditions – social anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, major depression, dysthymia, hypochondria and specific phobias.
Ordinarily a group like this would be treated with a range of therapeutic techniques, possibly even drugs. Yet after 17 sessions, 73% of the patients treated with the five factors improved and 60% no longer met the criteria for mental illness. The UP method has helped people beat posttraumatic stress disorder as well.
“We are all emotional beings,” says Barlow, founder of the Centre for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. “Emotions are natural and normal and should be allowed to run their course. The problem comes when you try to exert control over them or otherwise find them more distressing than they need to be.” Just ask Paul (surname withheld), a 43-yearold estate agent who developed debilitating panic attacks before sales meetings and fired three therapists before Barlow’s all-in-one treatment cured him.
“You have to feel the feelings,” he says. “You can’t think about something else or distract yourself. Trying to control the feelings is the biggest mistake you can make. When you try to do that, you just make them stronger.” It’s hard work to pinpoint your fear on the map and drive straight through it without taking the scenic route.
“There’s nothing deep or magical about these skills,” says Barlow. “You don’t have to lie on the couch for three years. It’s just a matter of learning a few new things, much like learning a new app on an iPhone.” Sounds easy when he says it.
So let’s start developing those skills, shall we? Here’s our DIY version of the unified protocol, from top to bottom.
SKILL 1 // FOCUS ON YOUR EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL STATE
First, you need to be able to identify your state of mind without judging it. That means fixing your attention on what’s actually happening, not the scary stuff you’re imagining. This can be complicated because anxiety manifests itself as a combination of thought, physical sensation and behaviour. “We have these three different things going on,” says Kristen Ellard, a co-author of the UP study with Barlow. “You need to look at how they are interacting.”
A nervous, unemployed guy, for example, may experience an increase in his heart rate as he contemplates overdue accounts. Feeling this triggers all sorts of judgemental thoughts about himself such as, “I’m tense because I am not strong enough to handle my situation.” Rather than endure these uncomfortable sensations and thoughts he indulges in escapist behaviour, distracting himself by surfing the Internet for some endorphin-triggering porn.
If that same guy can just focus on his tension and the physical sensations it brings about without judging himself for feeling it, he may end up surfing for a few new contacts rather than for naked women.
“Turn your attention to what is going on in front of you,” advises Ellard. The trick is to keep your observations real and in the moment. “Say, ‘My heart is racing, but I’m actually sitting here and I am okay.’ When the focus switches, your heart rate starts going down.”
SKILL 2 // USE SIMPLE QUESTIONS TO DEFLATE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
We tend to assess character by the steadfastness with which a man sticks to his principles. But someone who doesn’t reassess his assumptions on a regular basis has what is known as a rigid thinking style – and that can lock in negative patterns. “Rigidity is the enemy of growth,” Hayes says. “Do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always gotten.”
Say you receive a termination-of-service notice for your electricity bill. If you’re a rigid thinker, you may immediately tap into a set of negative assumptions you’ve made about yourself:
I am such an idiot. I will be living under a bridge within three weeks. (Or: women hate me; she’ll never agree to a date with me. Or: I can’t succeed; the boss has it in for me.)
Sound familiar? Before you decide you’ll be homeless or single, ask yourself a few simple questions: what’s the evidence for that thought?
What would a friend tell me to do in this situation?
Is there another way to look at this problem? You may find that the beliefs that make you miserable can’t survive rational answers to the simplest questions.
SKILL 3 // STOP DODGING YOUR FEELINGS
You’re probably doing all kinds of things to distract yourself from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. These efforts are what are known as “safety behaviours” – and they will make you their prisoner over time. So stop it, now. That’s the essence of the UP method. Do you watch hour upon hour of TV so you don’t have to spend time with your own feelings? Are those shows worth leaving your relationships foundering and chores undone? Talk about queasy thoughts.
The next time you feel tempted to escape an antsy feeling, hang in there. Take stock of it. Name it. Watch it for a while. Admire the way your body reacts to the chafing reality. Then ride it all out, like that rafting trip that has you praying first and then smiling later. The discomfort always ends. You survive. But you might not truly believe that yet because you’ve never given yourself a chance to find out.
SKILL 4 // STOP LETTING BAD FEELINGS DICTATE WORSE ACTIONS
Feelings don’t have to motivate your actions –and that’s especially true for negative ones. They’re just feelings. Not mandates for action. So the next time you feel tempted to cancel plans to go to a party because you’re worried about what other people will think of you, go through with them anyway. The same applies to asking the new girl in the office out on a date. That doesn’t mean you have to fake positive feelings. You don’t have to pretend you’re going to love the party because you might not. But stop basing your actions on negative feelings. Disconnect feeling shy from staying at home. Next up: don’t try to stifle the way your body expresses emotions you don’t like (and that includes not trying to override your emotions with drugs or alcohol). Your body’s fear-response system is just doing its job. Those reactions have evolved over millennia. Why would you try to override them in an instant?
Breathlessness, light-headedness, sweating and a twisting feeling in your stomach are all legitimate physical reactions to anxiety, evidence that your body is trying to give you extra energy and focus for the task at hand. It’s called the fight-or-flight response. You’ve spent most of your life in flight; from now on, you’re going to stand and fight.
SKILL 5 // VISIT YOUR ANXIETIES EVERY NOW AND THEN
Barlow’s UP therapy has a kinship with exposure therapy, an anxiety treatment based on bringing patients into close (and healing) contact with what they fear or avoid the most. As Barlow told that Mayo Clinic audience, “It’s not too many emotions that cause mood and anxiety disorders. It’s our relationship with our emotions.” Exposure therapy makes you identify your thoughts and sensations and the mad scrambling you do when you must face emotions you don’t like. You can pay an expert to guide you through the steps, but exposure therapy can also be selfadministered: just place yourself in the situation you dislike most, without your safety net. This goes straight to the heart of the unified protocol. If you satisfy your need to feel safe, you grant undue power to the circumstance you’re seeking protection from.
In order to finally convince yourself that these threats don’t exist, you have to address that crowd, go to that party, catch that plane. And sit in the fearful position doing so places you. Give your fear a rating – eight on a scale of one to 10, say – and live with it. Ask yourself questions about it, understand it, maybe laugh at it – and finally become a little bored with it. Once you complete this process, you should be able to cut your fear number in half.
THE FEARLESS FACTOR
If the avoidance of fear and other negative thoughts is responsible for all mood and anxiety disorders, the implications are vast – for the healthy as well as the anguished. Those disorders are your basic line-up of mainstream mental distress. They include major depression, social anxiety disorder, OCD, PTSD and all the phobias, from the fear of flying to fears of heights, dogs, crowds and public speaking. Panic disorder – a condition behind hundreds of thousands of false-alarm hospital visits each year – is also on the list.
Many substance-abuse problems stem from mood and anxiety disorders, too –and this is especially true for men. According to an Archives of General Psychiatry study, almost 20% of problem drinkers with an anxiety disorder used alcohol to self-medicate. And a 2003 study published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology found that three times as many men with mood disorders abused alcohol or drugs. If Barlow is right, it’s not negative emotions that create these clinical problems; it’s our desperate attempts to protect ourselves from them. If the UP approach proves correct, the guys with the richest interior lives and the most resilient minds are not the cold, fearless types but the emotionally willing – the guys who have felt it all and can ride it all out.
SO NERVOUS—SO WHAT?
Recently, while on a bumpy flight, I saw a news report about the search for the black box of a crashed jetliner. I switched to a different channel and then realised what I was doing: avoiding an uncomfortable feeling. So I switched it back and watched the report. It freaked me out. I watched the sweat collecting in my palms. I felt my heart race and my face flush. But I accepted those bodily functions and congratulated myself on my robust fight-or-flight response.
In doing this, I took a part of myself that I reject – my neuroticism – and incorporated it into my life story. It’s simply one of the things I feel, along with love for my family and my allegiance to my sports team. By accepting my fear as just one feeling among many, I not only feel more in command in moments of stress. I feel as though I am living my life more fully. Best of all, I will have that much more to offer my daughter the next time she needs a hand to hold during a bumpy flight. Even if it’s a sweaty hand, I can live with that. She’ll see that I accept my fear. That acceptance will help her as well.
“It’s not something you have to defeat within yourself,” says Hayes. “Ask yourself if you would have more freedom, more room to live life more fully, if you deliberately exposed yourself to your fears. Use it more as a process of being open to experiences rather than a problem in your life to be solved. It will gradually carve out more space in your life for you to be yourself.”
By Paul John Scott