Meredith Arthur is a San Francisco-based writer and video producer who was an early pioneer of “getting people to talk about mental health in a normal way.” Meredith created the website Beautiful Voyager in 2015 for overthinkers, perfectionists, and people pleasers, and she edits Invisible Illness, the largest mental health publication on Medium.
Below, Meredith shares 5 key insights from her new book, Get Out of My Head: Inspiration for Overthinkers in an Anxious World. Download the Next Big Idea app to enjoy more audio “Book Bites,” plus Ideas of the Day, ad-free podcast episodes, and more.
1. Anxiety comes in a hormone wave.
When we feel anxiety, it’s really a flood of hormones that come through our system, hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. What happens is you may have a thought, your brain sends a message to your body, and your body begins to take action in a predictive manner as to what to do with that thought—that’s when the hormones come flooding in. As the wave leaves, sometimes you’ll feel shaky, but that shakiness is actually a good thing—it’s a sign of the wave leaving, and that you’ve gotten through the anxiety.
2. Self-affirmations work because your brain is listening.
When you talk out loud to yourself, you’re actually speaking directly to your brain. I often say to my daughter, “Your brain is listening, don’t send negative messages to it!” The brain is a predictive modeler, and it’s constantly looking for patterns, taking in that information and incorporating it into its behavior. So if you say, “I’m a fat slob who lays on the couch all the time”, your brain starts to take in that information and says, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t get up and go for a walk. Maybe we should just lay on the couch since I’m a fat slob who likes to stay on the couch all the time.” Self-affirmations are important messages you can send yourself; you have to speak them out loud so that your brain can hear it.
3. Writing is a process as well as an outcome.
Many of us think of writing as something that we do to achieve a goal, but the truth is that writing is as much a process of understanding as it is an outcome. Perhaps you’ve heard of Julia Cameron’s morning pages, a writing exercise where you wake up in the morning, sit down, and write three pages longhand, and no matter where you are at the end of those three pages, you close the book until the next morning, when you do it again. Somewhat controversially, I advise people to recycle the book once it’s full. That’s because it’s not about holding onto those ideas, it’s about understanding that writing is a process. It’s the same with meditation; if you sit down and meditate, you’ll often find new ideas coming into your head, although that’s not the goal of meditation. Meditation is a process, and from that process those ideas come.
4. Anxiety doesn’t help you in the way that you think.
This is a misconception that is deep and widespread. Many people believe that anxiety makes them more productive, or that it helps them hit deadlines. And yet anxiety is not a helper—you’re achieving all that you are despite anxiety. One of the first steps towards freeing the grip of anxiety is understanding that you don’t need it to get things done—in fact, you’ll find that the better you get at managing your anxiety, the more productive and happier you’ll become.
5. Learn to spot your cognitive distortions.
Cognitive distortions are like different types of lenses our brain uses to see the world, things like black and white thinking, over-generalization, labeling, personalization, etc. An example of an over-generalization is, “I spent too much money on presents this year. I always do this. I’m so horrible with money.” If we go back to the idea that your brain is listening, these cognitive distortions support us believing things about ourselves that are reductive and untrue. The more that we can create more nuanced and realistic messages, to move from black and white thinking to shades of gray, the better off we will be.
The biggest challenge is to spot cognitive distortions when they’re happening. If you were able to easily spot them, you’d be able to change, but usually when we’re in the middle of them, we don’t know that they’re happening. We don’t know that we’re engaging in black and white thinking, for example. A way around that is to get an outside perspective. Actively solicit feedback from the people around you, your loved ones, and trust them if they tell you that you might be going down a path with cognitive distortions. Then use that insight to help you see these patterns.
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