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Tune out mental heckling to dial down anxiety, says psychologist Symington

The Hebrew word “shalom” is translated “peace” in English. It connotes not only peace between individuals but peace within an individual.

In other words, harmony, wholeness, completeness, a sense of well-being.

Too often, however, our thoughts rob us of this shalom, and we descend into an abyss of anxiety.

But Dr. Scott Symington, a clinical psychologist, wants to change all that by helping people learn to change their negative emotions by changing the focus of their thoughts.

He came on Fried On Business to talk about the ideas outlined in his new book titled Freedom from Anxious Thoughts and Feelings.

“Thoughts and feelings need energy to keep going, like everything else. If we want to have a sense of well-being, we want to cultivate the more positive, life-giving thoughts and feelings. When those more challenging thoughts and feelings show up – anxiety, anger, things like that – we want to go through the mental and emotional steps to diffuse them,” he said.

Start with breathing, Dr. Symington said. It’s about the central nervous system and the charge it gets when powerful emotions enter. Turn down the dial on the CNS, so you can think more clearly.

Focusing on the present moment also helps, rather than ruminating on the issue and reading meaning into it, he said. You could also focus on a favorite song to divert your attention from the anxious thoughts.

You could call this “mindfulness,” but that term has been used so much that it’s almost become devoid of meaning. Here’s what Dr. Symington says about it.

“A core feature of mindfulness is increasing your capacity to be more in the present moment – instead of going away in your mind and engaging in that negative rumination, that concern looping through your mind, and trying to analyze it and look at it from every angle or really being enveloped by that feeling,” he said.

For example, when you’re driving:

1. Notice how your hands are gripping the steering wheel.

2. Look down the road and open up your visual field.

3. Pay attention to the sounds around you.

That activates the “experiential focus network” in the brain, he said. You can’t do that and be worrying at the same time.

“Mindfulness has many, many benefits. It can protect us from worry. It can increase our sense of well-being, and actually help us enjoy these ordinary, tacit moments we have in life,” he said.

Dr. Symington likes to employ the “two-screen” method to achieving mindfulness.

Imagine your internal world as comprising two projection screens. In front of you is the present moment. To your right is the past, which may contain a lot of anxiety-producing memories.

First, you accept and redirect. Redirect your attention and energy to the front screen while allowing the old tapes to run on the side screen.

The side screen is like having a heckler on the sidelines. You don’t like the heckler, but fighting him gives him energy. You don’t fight the presence of the heckler, but you don’t focus on him, either.

Second, anchor the front screen. Dr. Symington said there are several ways:

1. Hyperfocusing on the present.

2. Any healthy distraction or activity.

3. Loving action. Use the side screen content as motivation to do better – to express the best of who you are. Send a text to someone. Make a long-overdue call. Make lemonade from the lemons.

Yes, this can be done. You can retrain your brain. Dr. Symington said the plasticity of the brain allows for the creation of new neuronal pathways and, therefore, new mental habits.

Here’s more good advice from the good doctor:

1. Commit to noticing two or three meaningful moments in each day.

2. Act on the things that are important to you, even if you’re feeling down. It’s a backdoor way to dial down the anxiety.

This was a fantastic interview, and I’m barely scratching the surface. Click here to listen to the full conversation with clinical psychologist Dr. Scott Symington.

Visit for more information about him and his book Freedom from Anxious Thoughts and Feelings.



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