One night last week, I made my way down to the bottom of the stairs outside my apartment, and as I moved along the concrete path next to the building I felt a round object roll underneath my sandal, followed by squelch and then a wetness under my foot.
I stopped – my imagination wondering what this round, wet object could possibly be – then I looked down for a nanosecond, seeing in the darkness below what looked like a small, black object on the ground.
Oh crap, I’d just squashed a dead rat.
While fighting back a rather immediate urge to vomit all over the animal, I turned around and walked straight back upstairs to perform a hospital grade disinfecting of my foot. My mind drifting as I thought to myself, ‘Is it still possible to catch the bubonic plague? In this day and age?’
I arrived back at my apartment and scrubbed my foot for a good ten minutes. During which time, I began to actually stop and think about this situation.
They say running water is supposed to be beneficial for your brain. – It’s why we often get our best ideas in the shower. – Regardless, as I washed my foot I looked back at what it was that I had just been thinking about; the rat, the potential for a catastrophic bacterial outbreak, and I started to question the logic of it all.
I decided that my worries weren't quite valid thoughts. I had stepped on a dead rat but there was no real reason to feel sick about that. It was unfortunate, yes, but would it kill me. No.
So, after I dried my feet I decided to go back and check it out again. Maybe I might even move the poor guy off the path to save the next passer-by from the same foot scrubbing nightmare.
I walked back downstairs and along the same darkened footpath. I moved closer to the squashed corpse and there at my feet, under the light of my iPhone, I made a surprising discovery.
I hadn’t actually stepped on a rat...
What was laying on the path before me was a rotting, old, brown, squashed banana.
The opening scene of the movie ‘The Big Short,’ begins with a quote from Mark Twain.
"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
Sometimes our minds can get so carried away with what we are sure we know or think we’ve seen or heard or felt, that we become convinced it’s true.
It’s quite easy as a result for our minds to begin to create irrational thoughts or worst-case scenarios out of incomplete pieces of information.
This type of thinking – called cognitive distortion – can very quickly lead to anxiety and panic.
For a large portion of my life I lived with this type of thinking, so I'm familiar with the particular kind of suffocating hell that it can produce. I still have the odd moment of irrational worry – i.e. the banana/rat attack – but I feel as if I’ve learned over time how to quieten those thoughts, to minimise those worries and defeat the types of fears that can grow out of these moments.
Here’s a few of the ways that I do it.
When I stepped on the old banana, my mind raced toward an irrational fear (death). I only realised ten minutes later after stopping and being present while washing my feet that this wasn’t exactly a rational thought.
If I’d had that moment ten minutes earlier I probably would have stopped to inspect the object closer and realised it was actually an old banana.
FEAR is simply False Evidence Appearing Real, and what I thought was a potential threat was actually just my mind quickly connecting the dots of the information it thought it had seen.
Being present here, by taking the time to stop and look closer at the situation could have saved me the ensuing ten minutes of panic.
Putting a stop to irrational thoughts or a catastrophizing mind can be a difficult train of thought to bring to a standstill, but once you identify the thoughts it becomes a hell of a lot easier.
By asking yourself what exactly is happening right now? Rather than, what do I think is going to happen? It can give you the space you need to see clearly what’s really going on.
I find if I can still answer the questions, am I still breathing? Am I still healthy? Am I still able to function here? Then the chances are that I can handle whatever it is that is creating the worry in the first place. I know i'm going to be OK, so I can get on with it.
Challenge the fear
I learned a long time ago that the only way to move past a fear is to challenge it.
Using the rat example again, even if the worst possible thing did happen – some kind of superbug outbreak that swept across the world. – There’s not one thing I would be able to do to prevent that. I’d have to accept it, so why worry about it in the first place?
So often we worry about things that are beyond our control. We can’t change things like the weather, unforeseen disasters, or even other people’s opinions of us, but we can control the way we respond to them and the way we think about them. That’s what’s most important.
Exposure to the fear
As a kid, I used to be petrified of public speaking (which is also the number one fear human beings have).
I used to be so afraid of it that it stopped me from doing things I wanted to do like nominating for leadership positions or speaking up when I felt I had something important to say.
I would catastrophise a situation and paralyse myself from doing the things I really could have, and should have done.
This type of worrying serves no positive purpose in a person’s life, and as I got older I began to realise this, I then started looking for ways to expose myself to this fear.
I started to present at schools, talking for over an hour at each session to rooms filled with parents and school students. And now I actually enjoy presenting because of the chance to come face to face with those irrational fears again.
The anxiety still exists to some extent, but it’s now a useful anxiety because I know that by exposing myself to it I can channel it into something useful.
The mind is such a powerful tool that can work in our favour to protect us and help us achieve some pretty amazing things. But it can also over exaggerate, catastrophize and worry in ways that can keep us trapped. By being present, challenging the irrational thoughts, and exposing ourselves to the thing we fear most we make the realisation that the mind is capable of these things, and thats ok.
When we are aware this happens we are then more able to put a stop to those worries when they occur, and to discover the fears which we thought were the harmful, diseased rats in our life may in reality be harmless, squashed bananas.