It drifted around in their bloodstream, dreamily content with its lot in life. Every moment was a joy. It was physically joined with its true love, and it had never wanted anything more.
One day, after a spate of joyous multiplying, the virus noticed with alarm that their host appeared to have fallen ill.
“Oh dear,” said the virus (for it inexplicably had the ability to speak as well as to experience abstract emotions like love and joy). “I’d better do something.”
And so the virus did the only thing it knew how: it began to multiply at a faster rate than ever before. It hoped that if it became strong enough it would be able to help its love.
But the more the virus multiplied, the sicker their host seemed to get. This only made the virus more determined to help before time ran out.
Spurred by love, it multiplied faster and faster and faster. Until, suddenly…
… there are only two ways this story can end. There’s the depressing (but possibly realistic) ending, where the love the virus has for the host eventually kills them both as the virus gets completely out of control.
Or there’s the somewhat-less-depressing (but still a bit depressing, if you think about it) ending where the virus is stopped by an injection of some appropriate antibodies*. This kills the virus, leaving the host to live happily ever after.
* I’m not a biologist, as is probably obvious. I’m pretty sure you don’t actually “inject antibodies”, and I can never remember if you can vaccinate against viruses or not… but you get the point.
One moral of this story is that we should probably avoid creating viruses that are capable of love.
But there’s another lesson we can draw, about how we relate to our own brains.
Sometimes it’s helpful to think of our brains as being made up of a bunch of independent forces all pulling in different directions. One part of us thinks we should do A, another part thinks we should do B.
Another part can’t be bothered with either, and would rather sit on a sofa and watch Netflix.
Because we’re internally divided, it’s normal to feel conflicted, confused, and unsure how to act. (And to occasionally think “screw it, let’s watch the next episode already.”)
But sometimes these internal conflicts can be very painful. One part of our brain can get stuck on a negative theme:
You did such a bad job. When everyone finds out they’re going to hate you.
(fill in your own examples here)
Two things usually happen when a thought like this pops up from some random part of my brain.
Either I argue with it, getting into a pointless, energy-draining internal war, where I debate back and forth about why I do (or don’t) suck, and why the consequences of this might (or might not) be eternal social damnation…
… or I just accept it unquestioningly, which condemns me to feeling sad and afraid.
But there is an alternative.
Like the little virus that is incapable of realising it is only making things worse, these parts of our brain that pipe up with negative, painful thoughts are usually well-intentioned.
This particular negative inner voice, for example, may be trying to protect me by trying to inspire me to do better work.
Realising that this inner voice may be acting with positive intentions gives me a new perspective. I can treat it as well-meaning advice, and either ignore it (“Thanks, but I’m happy with the quality of work there”) or take it on board (“Fair enough, I’ll try and do better next time, but I don’t think I’m going to be cast out of society for not doing my best work all the time.”)
Perhaps a part of your brain says “You should never talk to people in case they don’t like you”, and it freaks out whenever you’re in a social situation.
This part of your brain may mistakenly think it’s helping, by keeping you out of harm’s way. (Or, more accurately, what it believes is harm’s way.)
Like the little virus, it is incapable of realising that you have higher goals.
Also like the little virus, it doesn’t have the capability to do anything except ‘multiply’. Which in this case means “incessantly shouting at you when it gets afraid”.
Recognising these little voices for what they are can be helpful. Now whenever we enter that frightening social situation, we can expect them to speak up, and have a response prepared: “Thanks, but this situation isn’t as dangerous as you think it is. We’re going to try this.”
(Of course, this requires knowing that the situation isn’t truly dangerous. It would be rational to be afraid before getting onto a home-made rocket-powered sled full of tigers! Being able to get perspective on the true dangers of a situation is another strand in the anxiety tangle.)
This perspective also helps us to realise that we aren’t obliged to believe these negative thoughts. These frightened parts of our brain may have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to be correct.
Dealing with these parts of our brain doesn’t have to be as extreme as the virus story: ‘kill or be killed’ works with viruses, but not so much with our own brains.
Inner critic: Phew.
In untangling my own anxiety, I found that a large part of it was rooted in well-intentioned but misfiring parts of my brain.
Recognising this, and reducing their impact by quietly saying “thanks but no thanks” – my equivalent of a vaccine – was a big step towards reducing my overall anxiety.
No viruses were harmed (or created) in the production of this blogpost.
Check out or purchase the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores all these ideas in much more detail.
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Read the whole series on Anxiety here.