Is all anxiety bad, or based on faulty thinking? Of course not.
Are all negative thoughts erroneous, just because they describe or embody negative ideas?
Anxiety is a useful and necessary thing, when it involves a call to rational action.
For example, you feel anxious at the sight of an oncoming physical threat. You duck, move, run, or strike out against that threat. All of these things involve action, rational action that may be required even to save your life.
The problem with anxiety is when it’s based on things for which no immediate action is possible, or perhaps no action is required at all.
A common form this takes is worry over something you cannot control.
The purpose of anxiety is to guard you against dangers—real dangers, not merely perceived ones.
There are certainly real dangers in any existence. But the modern world—made possible by the (so far) limited science, rationality and freedom humans have permitted themselves to have—shields us from many dangers we would otherwise face. Put simply, it’s a hell of a lot less dangerous to live in a society with automobiles, grocery stores and satellite technology than to eke out an existence in a primitive jungle as a hunter-gatherer
‘Danger’ is an objective term, but also a contextual one. What we consider dangerous in a contemporary society is different from the dangers in daily life faced by a caveman, or someone unfortunate enough to be born into an impoverished or backwards country.
Consequently, the responsibility falls on ourselves to regulate our own anxiety. ‘Regulate’ does not simply mean ‘control.’ It means assuming responsibility for any gaps that exist between our minds and objective reality, at any given moment.
Probably the best way to accomplish this, in many cases, is simply to start by asking yourself, ‘What’s the real danger here?’ When you’re anxious, the mind and the brain are telling you, ‘Danger, danger!’ If your anxiety could speak, that’s what it would say: ‘Danger!’
By learning to ask yourself, ‘What’s the danger?’ you accomplish two things at once. First, you establish whether there actually is a clear and present danger of some kind. Usually there isn’t. Two, you start focusing on a plan of action, if one is possible and required.
People who worry about things they cannot control might ask themselves, ‘What form of action is possible to me right now?’ If none exists, and all precautions have been taken, then permission is granted (by oneself to oneself) to simply let it go, and focus on something else.
People who live their lives in a near-chronic state of anxiety are not facing constant, immediate or imminent danger. They merely feel that they are.
It’s kind of like being built for crisis, but not having nearly enough crises to merit the anxiety which is needed to motivate oneself for action.
A long period of reprogramming the mind is required, the degree to which the level and kind of anxiety is out of proportion to the objective reality one confronts each day.
In other words, if you’re living life in twenty-first century civilization, and you feel you’re constantly in danger—you’re probably not in any danger at all. You’re uncomfortable. You’re perhaps in need of some rational planning. That’s the thing. Advanced societies require less need to confront immediate, physical dangers. But they place an added responsibility on the individual to plan and think long-range—to anticipate trouble, and do whatever possible to prevent it from arriving, as in the case of bankruptcy, or a bad marriage, or having children before one is ready.
The question most often asked of professionals like myself is, ‘How can I get rid of my anxiety—and quickly?’
If you want to live your life with less anxiety, you’ve got to start looking at life differently. You’ve got to train yourself to stop looking for danger and instead looking for opportunities to grow, survive and plan. It can take a long period of effort to reprogram your mind fully, and to become more rational. Yet, in any single moment, you retain the power to think rationally … or not.
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