This photo was taken a few weeks ago up in the Adirondacks, one of my family’s favorite spots. Before sitting down for dinner, we set my son loose in a big open soccer field to “get his ya-yas out” first. We all ended up laughing a lot as the toddler repeatedly face planted in the grass (clearly still getting used to his new sneaks) and would just get right back up and keep running and giggling. In this moment I was thinking, “this is perfection,” which was closely followed by “…now when will the other shoe drop?”
The conundrum of joyful moments is that they are often entangled with a shadow of fear lurking around the corner. The “what ifs” and “when will it” and “how will I cope when it does” whispering in the background when everything in that moment is “right.”
When we let our guard down to joy, anxiety leaps into the foreground in an effort to protect us from an imagined threat that has not happened (and may not ever happen).
This is our wiring, our biology, intended to help us survive. What do we do about these moments? How do we enjoy life while managing this voice in the background?
First, start by gently acknowledging that your anxiety is actually meant to be a protector that is trying to help you. Sometimes that protector is in overdrive due to your life experience, genetic predisposition, or combination of both.
Anxiety tends to latch on to things we care about and create a lot of false urgency around the need to fix, solve, plan, and prevent. When we attempt to stop thoughts from being there, our stress increases. When we engage in behavioral compulsions, rumination, or mentally review a situation repeatedly – we don’t ever close the loop. We might feel better temporarily, but then the anxiety comes back, full-fledged. We create suffering.
While we can’t control what thoughts will pop into our brains, we can influence the extent to which we suffer as a result of them.
As the saying goes, “what we resist, persists.” The more you try to suppress thoughts, the stronger they get. Instead, it better serves us to meet our anxiety head-on.
The second step is to observe what thoughts are surfacing. When we can observe our thoughts in a nonjudgmental and nonreactive way, we can then start to make decisions.
Once you have identified what is making you anxious, ask yourself, “What things are within my control that are sensible to give to attention to?”
One challenge that people with anxiety often experience is discerning what is a reasonable worry vs. what is irrational. It can help to ask the question, “what would 90% of people I know think or do in this situation?” Asking this question can help us to properly discern when our thoughts are unreasonable, and this can help us to take the next reasonable action.
For example, if you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming meeting or presentation, you could think about specific action steps you could take to prepare for this. It is reasonable to have an appropriate amount of stress about public speaking. This allows you to properly plan, prepare, and complete the task effectively.
Once you have prepared sufficiently, any further rumination or worrying would be treated by increasing your tolerance to the uncertainty. Obsessing about the situation then enters the unreasonable realm, as you have already done everything within your control.
The antidote to obsessive worrying is NOT to convince yourself that the bad thing won’t happen.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the response that will help you the most in the long wrong is to build your tolerance to the unknown and accept that there could actually be a less than ideal outcome!
You might say things like, “maybe I will mess up, maybe I won’t, but I trust myself to handle whatever comes my way.” When there is a problem to address, you will solve it then. This strategy is the foundation of Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, which research has shown is one of the most effective treatments for OCD and other anxiety disorders.
When a shoe does drop (it will, this is life) – you must learn to trust that future you can solve whatever problems come your way.
When we can radically accept that uncertainty is a part of life and learn to tolerate this, rather than try to fix or plan our way out of it, we experience relief. We must accept that many things in life are out of our control. The bad thing might actually happen at some point. We have to understand that this is the nature of being human and that all that we can tackle is what is right in front of us today.
Try saying it out loud or writing it down on a sticky note. “I trust myself to handle tomorrow’s problems, whatever those might be.” Visualize those worries of later or tomorrow like leaves floating down a stream that you are sitting next to. Watch the thoughts come and go without picking them out of the water and then creating a story about them. Thoughts are simply thoughts and do not necessarily mean anything. As you coexist alongside your thoughts as they float by, bring your attention to what’s happening in this moment.
Here are some questions to get in the habit of asking yourself when you need to hop out of your worries and back into this moment:
- What are the facts of what’s happening right now? How can I reasonably respond to those facts?
- Is this a problem that needs my attention right now, or is this something I need to postpone worrying about until I have more information?
- What do you feel, see, hear, smell, & taste? Scan your environment for something that can ground you and help you savor beauty in the present.
This way of looking at life, of working with our anxiety (as opposed to fighting against) is a constant practice. It takes repetition, moment after moment, day after day, year after year.
This work is hard work, but it does get easier in time. Eventually, you build your tolerance to the unknown and to uncertainty with repeated practice. Your fears will still pop up, but you learn to respond to them in a completely new way that no longer interferes with living your life. Treatment works and there is hope.
If you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or any other mental health crisis, here are some resources below:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline