My mission was simple: pick up the Indian takeout and get home quick. Little did I know that I would be fighting a brain mosquito that had already ruined my mood and wouldn’t go away.
One thing after another notched my anxiety up and my mood down. The restaurant wasn’t where I thought it was — it was a 15 minute drive away. Then the drive took me almost an hour because Google Maps kept giving me directions that kept me ping-ponging between two neighborhoods. Once, I found a business that was one digit less than the restaurant’s, but my destination was nowhere in sight. The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.
I was sizzling with frustration. I was so hungry that I couldn’t think straight. (Sound familiar?)
Then I remembered: I should ask my alter ego. Now, this is going to sound strange, but it worked. I said, “Batman? Why is this happening to me?”
You’re letting your emotions take over.
“What should I do?”
Pull over. Clear your mind. What don’t you know that you need to know?
I realized I didn’t know the name of the restaurant so I called my wife. Once I knew what to look for, I saw the restaurant, barely visible in the distance.
Now you know what “brain mosquitoes” do: They buzz around your brain, they won’t go away, and they will ruin your day.
Why are brain mosquitoes so dangerous?
They’re certainly annoying, and sometimes they’re dangerous (you could have an accident while driving, and so on). And here’s what they definitely do:
- They distract you from what’s important
- They make it harder for you to think clearly
- They sap your energy and replace it with intense frustration
Do you want to have a clear head and a happy day? Here are three techniques for making them go away, fast.
Technique 1. Stop them from circling around you
This technique is useful in many situations; you can use it to defeat anger and negative thinking.
The underlying principle is to use something that interrupts the tight circle of thoughts that are robbing you of the ability to think clearly. It’s only during this interruption that can you choose to move in a healthier direction.
Here are some techniques that you can use in almost any situation:
- Visualize a huge stop sign (or your mother) and tell yourself forcefully, “STOP!”
- Tap your forehead while counting down from 50
- Take 10 slow, deep breaths (and take 10 more if you need to)
The first technique is called (duh) thought stopping. Not only does this interrupt the insistent thoughts, it also gives you a sense of control, which decreases your frustration. The second forces you to focus on the counting, and the tapping further disrupts the cycle of thoughts. Finally, the third is a mindfulness technique that anchors you in the present, away from the past.
You’ve just done the interruption part. Next comes choosing a better response. Remind yourself that you cannot change what has already happened, and focus on what you need to do right now.
Technique 2. Show them how small they are
One of the most powerful cognitive therapy techniques against negative self-talk is asking yourself “What’s the evidence?” and recalling examples from your life that prove what you’re thinking isn’t true. For example:
“I’m a complete failure and I’ll always be a failure.”
Maybe, but can you think of a time when you weren’t a failure?
“Well, I love my partner and we’ve been together for five years.”
“I got an A in most of my college classes. And I manage a lot of people in my job. So I guess I’m not always a failure.”
When you’re being attacked by brain mosquitoes, though, you aren’t thinking clearly. Here’s a trick that gets you the same result as asking “What’s the evidence that what you’re thinking deserves all this attention?”
- Think of something much worse that could happen today, something that would rate 9 on a scale of zero to 10.
- Ask yourself, “Where would your current situation be on this scale?”
- Clear your head and get on with your day.
Using my situation as an example:
- Going to the hospital after being in a car wreck; that would be 9 out of 10.
- What number should I give not being able to find the restaurant? Wow, something less than 1. (Remember, the scale is zero to 10.)
Everybody knows the general idea as “seeing the big picture” or “the view from 30,000 feet”. What this technique adds is putting a number on the zero to 10 scale, which make it very clear how minor your current frustration is.
Continue by taking 10 slow, deep breaths while focusing on your breathing. Then ask, “What should I do next?”
Technique 3. Get advice from someone wise
Getting out of your own head helps you think clearer (psychologists call this “self-distancing”). Davila may be worse off with the question, “What should I do?” They will definitely get a better answer from the question, “What should Davila do?”
To get a more powerful answer, make the questioner inside your head be a figure, either real or imaginary, who is wise or insightful: your wise grandmother, Abraham Lincoln, or a spiritual authority.
The last category is already embedded in Western culture with the question “What would Jesus do?” But taking from a simple but powerful insight, “People do better when they know why”, I think that it’s important to ask two questions. Using the elder Aldus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books, ask these two questions, then imagine what he would say:
“Dumbledore, why is this happening to me?” Then think about what he says.
“Dumbledore, what should I do now?” Consider his answer carefully. (And if you like, you can have a conversation with him.)
But the researchers who conducted experiments around this technique discovered that getting your advice from your inner Batman was very powerful.
How it works, and what to do
Asking another “person” interrupts the tight cycle of thinking that’s making things worse. Asking why? gives you insight into the things that have gotten you into trouble. Asking what? gives you concrete advice on how to move forward.
You can combine these three action into a simple rule that is easy to remember, and you can call on it even when you’re not thinking clearly: “When I get confused and irritated, I will ask Batman”. This simple will help you not just today, but every time you get into this kind of situation (and face it, things like this are just part of being human).
Here are three powerful techniques you can use when you’re overwhelmed, confused, or out of your depth:
- Visualize a big, red STOP sign (or the right person telling you “STOP!”).
- Compare, on a scale of zero to 10, what you’re going through now with something that is very serious.
- 3. Imagine asking someone you trust, “Why is this happening to me?” and “What should I do?”
When you use these techniques, you will go from crazed to calm, and the more you practice this, the easier it will get. Happiness and success come not from one big thing but from a collection of small things. This is one of them.