Is ‘Cognitive Photoshop’ causing your anxiety?

Negative feelings are such party poopers.

Depression, anxiety, anger and co. are not polite or politically correct to talk about. They feel uncomfortable. And we see ourselves as weak for having them, even if we don’t subscribe to Polyanna-esque naiveté.

So we manage them by performing ‘Cognitive Photoshop’— rationalising our feelings away and becoming needlessly stern with ourselves for having human emotions.

Do these sound familiar?

  • “Contrast” setting:  We say things like “It’s no big deal. It’s not as bad as starving children or [friend’s issue]”.  Pain becomes a competition, as though we’re not allowed to feel it because someone else has it worse.
  • “Highlights setting: Gratitude builds mental and emotional fitness, but there are times it becomes a dogged mechanical exercise that makes us unable to feel grateful.
  • “Brightness” setting: Platitudes like “Think positive!” and “Be proactive!”. Whilst it’s important to be optimistic and solution-focused, we cannot bypass the reality of our experiences.
  • “Empathy” filter: We say things like “hurt people hurt people” to justify why we should let others get away with recurring toxic behaviour, but lack empathy for how we feel.
  • “Everyone deals, why can’t you?” filter: We don’t talk about our difficult times, so we feel alone and imagine everyone else dealt better. We judge ourselves for being weak and stupid.
  • “Shit happens” filter: We tell ourselves things like deaths, losses and dilemmas are part of life, and so we expect ourselves to suck it up and soldier on without giving ourselves permission to grieve or process them.
  • “Quick fix” filter: We expect that popping a pill, taking a bath or going to yoga will miraculously solve the problem, except that we’re merely going through the motions.
  • “Time travel” filter: When haunted by the past, we scold ourselves that it’s been “so long ago” and expect ourselves to “just snap out of it”.

Essentially, we use our intellect to bypass our experiences. It’s especially easy if you’re logical and left-brained, and think that emotions are weak. Except that this doesn’t solve the problem.

Why? Anxiety isn’t meant to be ignored.

We evolved anxiety to signal when to withdraw, so we can protect ourselves and survive.

When ignored, anxiety becomes the child you’re ignoring. It will scream louder and tug at you.

Anxiety makes itself heard by that urgent preoccupation bubbling up, and we’re lost in the tornado of thoughts in our head. Our bodies react— migraines, tight chest, tense muscles. We start to notice them or even look for them— in psychology speak we call it ‘hypervigilance’— and get even more anxious. We catastrophise, believing something very bad is inevitable.

To manage, we perform even more Cognitive Photoshop.

Except, there comes a point where logic fails to hold the fort, and this erupts as anxiety attacks, panic attacks or the times you ‘let it out’— doing the things you regret like drinking excessively, having a meltdown or saying things you don’t mean.

When that happens, you affirm to yourself that your feelings are dangerous. The vicious cycle of Cognitive Photoshop and anxiety exacerbates.

Cognitive Photoshop, essentially, is managing a train wreck.

Stop managing, start mastering

Managing anxiety costs you more time and anxiety. And like how we start feeling despondent and inauthentic about the chasm between our Photoshop-ed pictures on social media and real life, Cognitive Photoshop creates learned helplessness. We feel less in-control, as though our minds work against us.

Instead of managing, I advocate mastering our minds, starting with:

  • Know how you escape: We oscillate between living in our heads and running away from our heads via various forms of self-medication. Worse is how we justify we’re having fun or rewarding ourselves. Before you do anything, always ask yourself, “Am I doing this to be good to myself or to medicate?”
  • Figure why you’re so hard on yourself: The playground bullies we once knew have become our Inner Mobsters— people experiencing anxiety are often extremely self-critical. Be aware of that voice that’s saying mean things in your head, and figure out whose voice that really is.
  • Your negative feelings aren’t negative: Most people fear that the intensity of their negative feelings will overwhelm them, and therefore they perform Cognitive Photoshop. Know that your nervous system can regulate itself, your negative feelings are really signals that guide you what to do next. Your body is wiser than you believe, and if you partner with it, you’ll master yourself.
  • It’s not about being obsessed with feelings: Many left-brained people’s biggest reservations about mastering anxiety is that they’ll become over-emotional and too soft. That’s an urban legend. It’s about training your feelings and brain to work with each other.
  • Ground yourself: When anxious, we react and make poor decisions; moreover, there is a difference between worrying and solving. Once we learn to ground ourselves, we can then use our brains to plan and solve problems, making wise decisions.

Your brain may be the best Photoshopper in the world, trumping the geniuses behind the Victoria’s Secret and Vogue photoshoots. But we don’t ask someone to Cognitive Photoshop cancer away, so we need to extend that same respect to our mental fitness. This way, anxiety stops owning us. And our brains start to work for us, rather than against us.