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Ch-8: Rise Above Anxiety, Anger, and Depression

Part 1: Mental Control of Emotions

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter 8, Part 1, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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What is mental control of emotions?

 The magic of mental control
 Six mental control strategies

Our thoughts can control our emotions through
external routes and internal routes.
The external route to happiness requires skilled actions and
cooperative forces in the external world.
The internal route to happiness is much more direct.
For those who believe their happiness totally depends
on conditions in the external world,
direct mental control over emotions seems "magical."

THE "MAGIC" OF MENTAL CONTROL--Get control without external changes

Clients come into my office with many types of problems. Many of these problems are about concerns over which they have no immediate external control. People worry about their relationships, careers, finances, addictions, health, and everything imaginable.

Some have almost given up hope and are seriously considering suicide. We can do nothing in one hour that will actually eliminate any of these external problems. We cannot reform partners, find a new job, or find sudden wealth. All we can do is think and talk.

Yet, amazingly, almost all of my clients leave my office feeling much better than when they came in. If they cannot immediately change the external causes which they believe cause their misery, then how can they immediately feel better? They can achieve more mental control of the situation and increase hope. Since mental control is the most important factor regulating emotions, clients can feel much better in less than an hour.

External conditions are important to our happiness; but most of the external conditions we assume to be essential, are not. When we believe that we cannot be happy unless the external world matches our desires, then we lose mental control.

The beliefs
(1) that no particular external conditions are essential for happiness and
(2) that we can mentally control our emotions
are foundations for mental control of emotions.

There are limits on external events, but no limits on thoughts. Real world events must stay planted in the ground, but our thoughts can soar. If we achieve mental control over these thoughts and emotions, then achieving control over the external events is not so important.

Two different clients faced two different tragic situations. These situations dramatically changed their lives. One--I will call Mary--developed an illness at age 19, which left her with no vision. Mary had loved visual beauty, reading, driving a car, going to movies and plays, and participating in many activities with her friends. She also loved her independence. After losing her sight, she could not even go for a walk by herself if it meant being in traffic; and her social contacts became much more limited.

There was no way that Mary could get her sight back--that was out of her control. She also had new limits in many life areas. She could never again drive a car, watch TV, or see a sunset. Although she had new limits to the "real control" she had over the external world, she discovered how to get mental control over the situation and her emotions.

Once Mary believed that she could find new routes to happiness, she began finding them. She found new routes to happiness in old activities she loved. She even learned how to "watch" TV and movies by listening and using her imagination. When she wanted to go "for a scenic drive," she would ask people to describe the scenery and she would create mental images of what she "saw." She continued to go with her friends to the same places. She even went to "singles bars" and danced.

She also found many new routes to happiness through a new view of life, new activities, and an inner world that she learned to love. She told me that her loss of sight had opened new doors and created a new world of opportunities previously unknown to her.

It is ironic that she is so much happier than most people with normal vision. She brought light into my life and I will never forget her. She was so happy and radiant that she helped me see how even loss of sight can be overcome by living in harmony with our outer and inner worlds.

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Too much dependence upon others means loss of mental control over our happiness. The other client, Nancy, also had a tragic loss. Her husband suddenly died. She had been extremely close to him; and had depended upon him as her main source of happiness in many life areas.

Nancy had feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and depression because she had lost control over much of her life. She had been so dependent upon her husband for taking care of her that she had little confidence she could take care of herself. She had developed a strong belief that "he made me happy" and had little confidence that she could "make myself happy." Nancy believed that the center of control over her happiness was external--her husband--and not internal.

Deciding to take responsibility for our own happiness increases our mental control. To get mental control over her life she had to learn that she could make herself happy and develop realistic plans for getting her values satisfied. She learned how to do the "scary" things her husband had done for her such as pay the bills or get the car fixed.

She was feeling especially lonely and "out of control" when alone at home. Therefore, it became especially important for her to learn ways that she could make herself happy when she was at home alone. She found ways to entertain herself during times of the week when she had been used to doing things with her husband--such as Saturday night. Nancy changed expectations that she shouldn't be alone and thoughts that she was weird if she went out alone.

Understanding and planning establish mental control. The essence of mental control is understanding and planning. (These are means of cognitively processing the input at an optimal level.) Nancy worked on understanding the situation and its causes and on developing realistic plans for getting her values satisfied. Her increased understanding and planning gave her the mental control and relief she sought.

It was not necessary that she had not yet carried out those plans. Of course, once she did successfully complete her plans and get her values satisfied, then her confidence was strengthened even more.

Knowing the limits of mental control gives us more mental control. After reading this or other books about feeling happier, do you ever feel guilty because you aren't happier? You may have turned the ultimate concern of maximizing happiness into an expectation that you "should feel happy all the time"--or there is something wrong with you. That only leads to unproductive guilt. Aim for gradual improvement (with some backsliding) instead.

Mental control and hope. Does it seem like magic that--without any "real world" changes--we can feel a lot better and still be honest with ourselves? It isn't magic, but it is powerful medicine! What is the essence of mental control? Perhaps it is realistic hope.

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If one man conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men,
and if another man conquer himself, he is the greatest of conquerors.
(Gautama, the Buddha, Dhammapada)

Recall one of Victor Frankl's most miserable experiences in the Nazi concentration camp when he was able to psychologically remove himself from the situation and imagine himself lecturing about the experience. Suddenly, he felt much better.

One summer, Sherry and I were trying to summarize the essence of overcoming negative emotions, and we first created our "rising above" mental image. Whenever we started feeling an unpleasant emotion, we created a visual image of our bodies immersed in the soupy muck of the difficult situation. Then we imagined our Higher Selves rising above the muck to a safe place above.

From this vantage point we could look down upon life's problems from the enlightened perspective of our Higher Selves. That image had a very calming effect. We have often used this image to bring calm to an otherwise stressful situation and get centered in our Higher Selves. This is an example of one simple mental control technique that works for us.

Dr. Wayne Dyer tells the story of an airline flight attendant who felt constant stress from people making negative comments about the airline or service as they left the plane. The flight attendant felt personally attacked by their comments--even though the comments were not directed at her personally. She didn't know what to do.

Dr. Dyer told her that the people were really addressing her uniform and not her. He suggested that she imagine her uniform was like a suit of armor. Whenever anyone made a negative comment, she imagined the words bouncing off the uniform. This image helped her keep a more positive attitude and control her stressful feelings.

There are many specific techniques that can help us get more mental control over our emotions. I have tried to refine them into their basic elements. The result of this refinement is the following set of six Harmonious Thinking mental control strategies. Learn and use these six to lower your emotional temperature when it is too hot or raise it when it is too cold.
The SIX HARMONIOUS THINKING mental control strategies to "RISE ABOVE" negative emotions:(1)

1. CHOICE--replace or accept and convert the situation?
2. HARMONY of motives--resolve inner conflicts.
3. UNDERSTANDING--create a road map to success.
4. GOALS and EXPECTATIONS--adjust to keep the task optimally challenging.
5. OPTIMISM that you can be happy no matter what happens.
6. FOCUS--keep your "eye on the ball."

(Think of "CHUG-OF" to remember the six strategies)

We will now look at each of these six harmonious thinking strategies to "rise above" anxiety, anger, and depression and get into the zone of harmonious functioning. Get in touch with a real, complex emotional situation and relate these techniques to that problem as you study each.

1. The Buddha's (Gautama's) eightfold path and my six Harmonious Thinking mental control methods have vague similarities, which those familiar with his teachings may notice. My six were not derived from or based upon his, but both stress mental control of emotions through some similar thought devices.

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