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Break Free From Anxiety: Change Your Belief Systems

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If I have a personal belief or a fixed thought that a "real man" is a stoic individual who should never ask for help -- because that indicates weakness -- I will be critical of myself whenever I am sad or whenever I am going through a difficult time. I will then feel anxious that something is seriously wrong with me.

Conversely, when our minds are fixed in perhaps a positive belief of how things are or should be, and someone or something comes along and challenges that belief, we get scared. We fight aimlessly to try and hold on to what we think is basic actuality. And, when we are unsuccessful, and we always are because life is full of variety and constant change, we become very anxious. Hence, "fixed thinking" is based on our personal belief systems.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, "It is not the things themselves which trouble us, but the opinions that we have about these things."

What are personal belief systems?

Belief systems are blindly implicit and uncritically-held values and opinions that are at times handed down from generation to generation. They are made up of familial, societal and culturally-based doctrines that are loosely embedded in historical events. Individuals typically do not question their validity because they were supposedly passed down by sacred ancestors that apparently possessed more wisdom than us. Sometimes, belief systems are even considered by many to have a mythological and almost miraculous quality to them.

Belief systems are also considered important ideological principles possessing relative worth. They are ideals and formal assessments of life written in indelible ink that speak with an authoritative voice. This authoritative voice is so convincing to many cultures that questioning certain beliefs is equivalent to committing a heinous crime.

What are automatic thoughts?

Automatic thoughts are integral products of our belief systems. They are reflexive, auto-pilot responses and reactions to the world around us. Since we are beings of habitual behavior, our brains are on knee-jerk mode for most of the day. In this mode, we unconsciously respond to certain stimuli in a spontaneous and impulsive fashion without even knowing it. We especially respond this way whenever we are fearful or anxious. One might say we are like walking impulses operating strictly on instinct. The instinct is, of course, guided by our personal beliefs

The automatic thoughts we all acquire over time become part of an internal dialogue we have with ourselves. Through personal interpretation, this inner discourse gives each stimulus or event in our lives an automatic label followed by an unsubstantiated conclusion. These labels and conclusions are usually believed without prior evidence or analysis.

Automatic thoughts are:

Learned from childhood

We did not emerge from the womb with our belief systems and automatic thoughts already intact. We learned them and quickly adopted them from somewhere in our childhood and adolescent years. We learned them from society, our parents, religion, culture, the media, school, friends, etc. Hence, whatever we learn in life can be unlearned.

Impulsive, as if operating unconsciously

They occur impulsively without our even knowing it, and sometimes speak for us even before we've had time to think about it. But we are not walking impulses like animals in the jungle that operate on instinct and natural reflex. We can rise above the impulsive thoughts and automatic urges and think our lives through.

Believed as fact and rarely challenged

Our automatic thoughts are believed as ultimate truth because they occur so quickly and because our knee-jerk reactions are so cemented in our brains that we don't bother to ever question them. Our "fixed thinking" does not allow us to consider other frames of reference due to the blind certitude a personal belief system possesses. "Don't believe everything you think" is the best defense or challenge against this fact.

Irrational and imbalanced

Our automatic thoughts can be reckless, and they often possess catastrophic characteristics that are usually imbalanced and out of proportion to the situation. They possess cognitively distorted traits that cause us to be very emotional and reactive, like only seeing a situation in all-or-nothing terms. There are very few gray areas in these imbalanced thoughts because the mind is thinking only in extremes.

Reflections of "core" issues that have existed for a long time

We often think automatic, recurring thoughts about ourselves that are negative and self-critical such as, "I am so stupid," or "I should have known better," or "I will always be a failure." These thoughts are representations of personal core issues we hold onto about who we are. They are part of the self-defeating soundtrack we undeservedly define ourselves by that can be traced back many years.

Exercise:

An excellent way to begin to identify our own belief systems and to see how automatic our responses are to certain subjects is to complete the exercise below.

Please write your personal belief system around the following terms. (Remember to only write down the first thing that comes to mind. Your recorded response must be your initial, reflexive, automatic thought. This primary thought will undeniably be your raw personal belief.)

Example of a Politics belief is: "All politicians are crooks."

Example of a Career belief: "If I am not successful, people will not like me."

Career

My personal belief______________________________________________________

Money

My personal belief______________________________________________________

Marriage

My personal belief______________________________________________________

Religion

My personal belief______________________________________________________

Politics

My personal belief______________________________________________________

Exercise:

Now, try to remember how you felt the last time another individual's personal beliefs about the subjects in the previous exercise differed from yours. Or try to notice when it happens in the future. How will you feel? Will you make them wrong for thinking differently?

For instance, let's pretend you possess passionate, automatic thoughts surrounding the subject of marriage and your new friend does also. But his/her beliefs are the polar opposite of yours. How might you react?

Your friend's automatic thought: "Marriage should only be between a man and a woman. If two people cannot procreate, then it's not a legitimate union."

Your own automatic thought: "Equal rights are equal rights. Marriage is an institution that everyone should have the right to, regardless of sexual orientation."

Because our beliefs are so powerful, we actually may be shocked that others could think the way they do. How could they believe that? They must be crazy! We may even become suspicious of them for thinking so illogically, and more importantly, for thinking so acutely opposite to us.

But the irony here is that these people, who you may have already labeled as naive, are probably thinking the same about you. Why? Because like you, they are also stuck in their own beliefs and cannot see past them.

For more by John Tsilimparis, click here.

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