Anxiety, Anxious Thoughts: When to Act and When to Be Still
To begin with an understatement, let’s say that anxiety is frustrating and anxious thoughts disrupt inner tranquility. An equal understatement is that we don’t have to give into anxiety and remain trapped. There are so many ways to beat anxiety, and there are strategies and tools for every personality and unique individual who experiences their own version of anxiety. An important part of gaining freedom from anxiety (which means both reducing anxiety symptoms and living well in spite of lingering symptoms) is knowing when to act on anxiety and anxious thoughts and when to be still.
The Balance Between Acting on Anxiety and Remaining Still
Anxiety often has a purpose. It can serve as a warning that something is wrong and we need to tend to it for our safety or general wellbeing. Anxiety affects thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It causes discomfort, sometimes of huge proportions. It zaps energy, and it limits our ability to live our lives fully. Sometimes, all this discomfort and disruption has a purpose.
We have a fantastic system encompassing mind and body that is designed to keep us safe and alive. Part of our mind watches for danger and alerts the rest of our brain and body when threats lurk. Then, our system prepares us to act, usually to fight or flee. This system is so sophisticated that its protection extends beyond basic survival instinct. Anxiety can be motivating and help us do what we need to do. When we care about someone or something, feeling some anxiety about losing it can help us take action to keep it.
Anxiety and accompanying anxious thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations can help us stay safe and create the lives we want to live. Therefore, listening to anxiety and choosing behaviors because of it can be a good thing and yield positive results. If you like your job and want to earn promotions, for example, a small amount of anxiety about losing it can keep you motivated to excel.
That said, anxiety isn’t always protective or motivating. Sometimes, it decides that it likes being in charge and driving your actions. It becomes louder and louder in order to make you avoid people or situations or act without pausing to decide if your actions are necessary or desirable. Continuing the example about liking your job, if your anxiety is high and becomes performance anxiety and perfectionism, you might be compelled to overwork at the expense of other areas of life. In this case, acting on anxiety about failure does more harm than good.
In freeing yourself from anxiety’s control, it can be helpful to find a balance between acting on anxiety and remaining still to resist the impulse to fight or flee. Finding this balance can be difficult, but it is possible.
To Act or to Be Still: How Do You Know Which One?
You can decide whether to act on your anxious thoughts or to be still, allowing them to be there without changing your behavior. To do so, put some space between yourself and your anxiety to avoid merely reacting rather than responding thoughtfully, and then look for patterns.
- Use the mindfulness skill of nonjudgmental awareness to notice your anxiety and anxious thoughts without judging them.
- Distance yourself from your thoughts. Instead of automatically believing, « I’m not good enough and I’m going to fail, » remind yourself, « I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough and I’m going to fail. » This gives you a chance to look at it objectively rather than remaining stuck in reaction mode.
- Look for patterns. When do you have this particular anxious thought or experience these symptoms of anxiety? If anxiety is specific to a situation, it could be your warning system at work. (If you have high anxiety in a relationship that is often harmful, your anxiety is likely warning you to leave that relationship.) If you seem to constantly experience anxiety, your action might be to reach out to a therapist for help dealing with it.
- What else is happening when you experience anxiety? Does it spike when you are tired, hungry, or experiencing hormonal situations? Is it related to something specific (such as perfectionism around your job) but comes and goes? In these cases, you might not need to react to your anxious thoughts. Take a break, eat a healthy snack, or take other measures to keep anxiety in check, but then be still. Allow anxiety to be there and turn your attention to something else instead.
By looking for patterns underlying your anxiety, you can learn to strike a balance between acting on anxiety and remaining still. Then, you–not your anxious thoughts–are in charge of your actions and your life.