Reality or Bias - Can you spot the difference?
"You should tell that story to everyone who comes to see you for therapy."
I often tell stories to my clients in the hope that something in the tale will have an impact on their situation and help initiate change. If someone comes to me with anxiety, I could explain anxiety to them as a neurological event, analyse their situation and explore intellectually what was helping maintain their anxiety. Would this help? Yes, to a certain degree. However, stories often help us learn to see things more clearly. The cultural history of humanity abounds with illustrative tales designed to create a deeper understanding of self and our relationship to the world. My client, Adam, whom I've quoted above, was urging me to share the following story more widely as it helped him see his negative bias towards life and how he was fueling his anxiety.
The story I am about to tell is not overly complex or unique but it is true and happened to me. It's a good example of how our brains seem to be hard wired to focus on danger, which can lead to creating anxiety conditions and with repetition a negative bias towards reality. This pattern then becomes a closed negative feedback loop within which we lose track of the potential positives which surround us.
It is also a story of hope - we also have an amazing capacity to learn; to retrain our minds; to create a sense of well being and establish a greater connection with others.
About 15 years ago, I lived about 5 miles outside a major city and cycled to work. The job I was doing was stressful and I was often anxious and angry. On my journey home, I had to cycle up a hill on a busy main road. My stress levels were already high after work and I often got home more wound up than I had been before the journey. During the cycle I found that I focused on every car that came too close to me and I hurled abuse at the driver. This was the cause of my increased stress on arriving home.
One day, however, I decided to have a reality check. Just how many drivers passed too close? Was it 50%? 30%? I cycled back that day and began to count. I also decided that every driver who gave me ample space would get a thank you.
To my surprise, I found that it was only about 5% of drivers who didn't give enough passing space. What was interesting also was that when I arrived home, after thanking all the other drivers, I felt more at ease. I had undone the negative bias, I had created, with a quick reality check and boosted my feelings of connection with others in the space of 20 minutes or so.
Adam, not his real name by the way, reported that the story had a positive influence on his life too, after the session - he's able to see his work colleagues as far less threatening as a result and leaves work with much less anxiety at the end of the day.