I’ve been squishing bugs at my office for the past three weeks, and I think I’ve finally won. No, not literal bugs, but the technological kind. I’ve been working on my website to make it faster and easier to use, but ran into a series of computer bugs that left my website garbled and broken. Well the website is up and working now, but untangling the problems reminded me a lot of helping my clients with anxiety issues, and what we often find at the root of them.

Stick with me for this brief techno explanation and you’ll see how it fits with the treatment for anxiety. You see, at the bottom of my technological woes was a website computer file that was not getting wiped clean when I updated it. When I change a page on my website, a new version should completely replace the old version in the computer file system. Unfortunately, there was a glitch that was allowing bits of old information to get left behind, so every new version of a website page became corrupted by the information left behind by the old one. As with so many things involving technology, it’s not what was supposed to happen and so it was one of the last places I looked to solve the problem.

So what do stuck and corrupted website files have to do with an anxiety? It has to do with the fact that people are “meaning adders.” In every new experience, a person makes a mental “file” of what they can expect the next time in a similar situation. So with every situation you encounter, you’re drawing on a collection of these “files” to add your understanding to what’s going on based upon your past experiences. The technical word for this is “heuristics.” They’re like mental short cuts or “rules of thumb” that usually produce a good answer, and keep us from getting bogged down analyzing all the details of a situation each time as if they were brand new. You probably don’t even realize when you are taking these mental short-cuts because your guess or estimate is usually close enough that it works according to your expectations. Even in reading this article, your brain gets the essence of the words as you read without looking at every single letter like you did when you first learned to read.

Check out this example of how you can easily read something even when the letters are scrambled. Your brain draws on it’s “files” for words and, because the letters in the words below are close enough to make a good guess, it’s able to go directly to what the word probably means instead of stopping to sort out each garbled word.

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Or rather…

According to a researcher (sic) at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole

This happens in relationships too. When a person encounters a new situation that clashes with what history says they should expect, if it’s close enough then it will get reorganized to fit with expectations. It may not be accurate, but it works enough. But when the situation defies an easy understanding is where anxiety can begin as everything a person believes to be true is now not fitting with this new experience. The old expectation “files” clash with the new ones. The most common human solution is to “corrupt” this new experience with the old experiences. It’s not usually conscious, just a reflexive protection in an effort to make sense of the situation and reduce anxiety. For example, if that mean co-worker is nice to you one day, you’re going to tell yourself that they must have some hidden agenda that is ultimately bad. Or, you may not even notice the positive interaction at all. It just slips right by you since your not even looking for the possibility of something good coming from someone that has been so mean in the past. In other words, old bits of information get stuck and conflict with new truths, and this interferes with your ability to freely take in something new. Buggy!

But what if things really HAVE changed and the old “files” don’t fit with the new reality. I’ve watched couples on my couch completely, blinded by the anxiety of their expectations, completely miss the new loving words and gestures from their partner because it’s not what they anticipate will happen. Old files tell them to expect rejection and loneliness. Sometimes it shows up with a lack of eye contact that keeps the person from literally seeing the new available partner sitting right in front of them, or ears that hear rejection when there has been a sincere request for connection. It’s a little surreal sometimes to see the distorting and parlaying effects of anxiety in action and how garbled and distorted things can get.

When the reality of a positive change does finally get through without the corrupting “bugs” of the past, that it would be all joy. Sometimes it starts that way briefly, but the joy is often quickly overcome by anxiety about whether this new experience is true and lasting. In other words, there are still a few persistent bugs in there to crush. Just in case the new experience doesn’t last, the old file system of beliefs loads in again to prevent any possibility of disappointment.

Fortunately, with enough repetition and re-experiencing of something new, the new files do stick and become your “normal” for what to expect. This may require some courage and others, like a psychologist, who can help you see what’s actually happening versus what your anxiety-garbled reality tells you is true. It reminds of the cockroaches I had to deal with when I lived in Texas. They were huge and tough to kill critters that would not die if you just stepped on them. Kind of gross, but they required a “step and pivot” method to actually finish them off. Some of those old belief systems may require a little extra effort to exterminate because of the anxiety that arises with change. As Henri Nouwen once said: “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living, you live your way into a new kind of thinking.”

****For all the entomologists reading this, no actual bugs were harmed in the making of this blog.

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