The Need to Explain

Jerilyn Ross, author of Triumph Over Fear, describes one of her patients, Lorraine, who had been experiencing panic attacks but didn't know what they were. Lorraine thought something was terribly wrong with her, but had no idea what it might be. She only knew she was overwhelmed by negative feelings of terror, seemingly at random. Her doctor didn't know what was wrong with her either, so he recommended a neurologist. Ross wrote:

With total disbelief that she could even think this way, Lorraine described how while she was waiting for the test results, she found herself almost hoping that she had a brain tumor: "Then at least there would be an explanation as to what was wrong with me!"

Lorraine wanted an explanation. She craved an explanation. Daniel Wegner, one of my favorite researchers and the author of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obesession, and the Psychology of Mental Control, says that our minds have a strong drive to explain feelings of anxiety. I remember once taking an aspirin, and later feeling very anxious. I made an assumption about what caused my feelings. I didn't try; my mind naturally and automatically came up with a reason why I felt anxious. The anxiety is like a puppy with new teeth that needs something to chew on. The mind searches around to find the most likely thing, the most blatant worry, and latches onto that and starts ruminating about it.

I had been talking to someone about a tense situation, and I assumed our conversation was causing my anxiety.

I found out later the aspirin contained caffeine and the anxiety was artificially-induced. But the same thing happens with naturally-produced adrenaline. Something gives you a shot of adrenaline. Let's say you almost hit the curb when you swerve to avoid hitting a log in the road. It scares you a bit, but now it's over. The adrenaline, however, is still in your bloodstream. It doesn't go away after the mini-crisis. And if you later feel some anxiety you'll explain it, quite automatically and with no conscious intention on your part. You might have forgotten about the log in the road. So your mind will come up with something to justify your feelings of anxiety, which of course puts your mind on troublesome, worrisome things. Which, of course, can cause your body to produce more adrenaline, keeping the cycle going.

Many times I've solved one problem after another, only to have my mind search around for another worry. In other words, the adrenaline can come first. We already know that a scary or worrisome circumstance or thought can come first and it can produce adrenaline. But it is also true that you can have extra adrenaline for some other reason — coffee, an suspenseful movie, intense rock music — and then the adrenaline causes your mind to search for a bone to gnaw on (trying to find a reason for the feeling), finds something and starts worrying about it, producing still more adrenaline rather than letting it naturally drop back down.

One of the things I've wondered is why I like loud rock music, intense action movies, and coffee. Obviously those aren't what my system needs. I already have too much adrenaline in my system. Why would I seek out things that give me even more? With this understanding of how the mind works, it seems I must get some relief from worry because while I'm feeling high strung, I know what's causing it and my mind is relieved of its obsession for finding a cause to attribute the anxiety to. If I have a feeling of anxiety, I immediately think, "It's the coffee," and that's the bone for the puppy. The mind's need to explain is satisfied, and the explanation is nothing to worry about; the caffeine will wear off. And my mind is silenced, at least for a little while.

It is only a temporary relief, though, because these things are causing my body to produce more stress hormones, whether I have a temporary explanation or not. My mind may be satisfied, but my body is still wearing itself out with hyperarousal. Doing things that make it worse is not the answer.

The method here is simply to remind yourself of this fact: Your mind has an automatic response to adrenaline — it needs to find a cause. When you feel anxious, remind yourself of this fact. It helps.

And watch what you entertain yourself with. Does the music you're listening to make you feel tense? Does the movie pump adrenaline into your bloodstream? Be careful about doing even fun things that produce adrenaline or cortisol. Movies with tension or violence or suspense. Drinking coffee. Playing intense video games. Certain kinds of music. There are maybe a hundred CDs you would enjoy listening to. Some will cause tension in your body and others won't, but you enjoy them all, so choose the ones that will cause the effect you want on your body. Try to get your enjoyment without the tension. Alternatives might be uplifting or inspiring movies. Calming, soothing music. Drinking chamomile tea. Playing tennis, golf, softball.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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