A River Cuts Through Rock: Building the Ability to Change



It has been six weeks since I started a more rigorous workout regimen, kickboxing and circuit training. Most weeks, when I combine my classes at the gym with walking on the treadmill at home or going for walks at the local Metropark, I am exercising five times per week.


My body is already a little trimmer. The scale reads slightly differently. Which is great, but the goal of this exercise regimen, the true goal, is not to lose weight but to build self-confidence and to fight my anxiety disorder, to finally overcome my panic attacks. Losing weight is just a wonderful side benefit.

So how am I doing with building self-confidence and fighting anxiety? Well, I know that the way I am talking to myself is changing. Now, when facing a challenge, I am much more likely to say, "I can handle that." "Of course, I can do it." Or maybe even, "I am tough. I am strong. Bring it on!"
My kickboxing gloves... Man, are they sweet!

I'm reading a book right now called the "The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life," authored by Robert Brooks, Ph.D., and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. Brooks and Goldstein write that most of us have "negative scripts" that we tell ourselves over and over and that keep us stuck. Sometimes, we are not even aware of these negative scripts, which is where listening to loved ones or getting professional help like therapy can be important.

My negative script surrounding my anxiety goes, "I can't control my anxiety. It will overwhelm me and I will lose control." This is why I have panic attacks when driving -- I am afraid of losing control of the car.

Other negative scripts of mine go similarly. "I can't control my bipolar disorder. It will strike when I least expect it, I will lose control, and I will lose my job and have to be hospitalized." No wonder I lack self-confidence if this is what is running through my brain!

Brooks and Goldstein write that resilient people believe that they are in control of their own lives. They point to the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Resilient people have this "wisdom to know the difference," to tell the difference between the things they cannot change and the things they can. But they also firmly believe they can change a great deal about their lives through effort and determination to change, eliciting the help of others and commitment.

Brooks and Goldstein encourage readers to first identify their negative scripts, then change their negative scripts to positive ones. I believe that is what I am doing through my more rigorous workout regimen. As I have successes in the gym, taking on punishing workouts, my way of talking to myself is changing: "I am such a badass," I am starting to say to myself. I feel powerful. I feel efficacious, to put it another way.

My therapist noticed the difference. He said, in our last session, that I was sitting differently. Unlike usual, I was sitting with my hands clasped behind my head and my legs stretched out. My therapist called that a "power pose." There is even a famous TED Talk on power poses and how they affect us. According to Amy Cuddy, the researcher who gave the TED Talk on body language, sitting straight and squaring our shoulders can make us feel more in-control, while sitting hunched-over can make us more anxious. Our emotions reflect our bodies' messages.     

This way I am changing how I talk to myself is reflected in what challenges I am willing to take on. I am pitching new ideas at work, stepping out in my personal life. And the driving, the crux of the panic attacks...? Just in the past week, I have driven a total of three hour and a half hours on major highways. And I was driving like a boss! Changing lanes without fear, passing up trucks... you name it.

No, OK, kickboxing and circuit training is not a cure for anxiety and panic attacks. I still remain an anxious person, and I am not going to stop taking my anxiety medication any time soon. But oh my goodness, is it helping! I think rigorous exercise of any kind is valuable if you are dealing with anxiety. If you are unused to exercising, first check with your doctor and get a physical. But then, go to it! Find something fun, that keeps you engaged.

At the same time, work to identify and change your negative scripts. Do you tell yourself that you are weak, that you can't handle your illness? Do you tell yourself that you are a loser or that your life is out of control? Set some small, doable, short-term goals -- give yourself a week. Then achieve them. It will build your confidence and show you that you actually are effective. Keep setting goals and working towards them until your negative scripts begin to change as you see that you actually are in control of your life.

"Strength... A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence." Be persistent in choosing the good for yourself. And I will do the same for myself. We can change our negative scripts and become more self-confident, more effective. We are the authors of our lives, with the innate wisdom to know what we can and cannot change and the courage to change the things we can. Be filled with that courage and start enacting a different script.

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