Contrary to what the drug companies would have you think, anxiety can often be a useful and necessary thing; specifically, when that anxiety triggers a call to sensible action. For example, you feel anxious at the sight of an oncoming physical threat. You duck, move, run, or strike out against it. All of these things involve action – rational action that may in fact save your life.
The problem arises when anxiety is based on things for which no immediate action is possible, or perhaps where no action is required. A most common form this takes (and I see it every day in my office) is worry over something you can’t control.
The purpose of anxiety is to guard against real and actual dangers, not just perceived ones. And there are certainly enough real dangers out there. But the modern world, made possible by the limited science, rationality and freedom humans have permitted themselves to have, shields us from many dangers we might otherwise face. Put simply, it’s 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 faced daily by someone unfortunate enough to be born into an impoverished or backwards country. The responsibility therefore falls on us to regulate our own anxiety. And regulate does not simply mean control. It means assuming responsibility for gaps that might, at any given moment, exist between our minds and objective reality.
In many cases, the best way to accomplish this is 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!” But by learning to challenge those thoughts by asking yourself, “What is the danger, exactly?” you accomplish two things: First, you determine whether there is in fact a clear threat or danger. Usually there isn’t; the brain has simply reacted automatically. Second, if a plan of action is actually required, then you focus on that plan of action.
People who worry about things they can’t control should ask themselves, “What form of action is possible for me right now?” If none exists, and all precautions have been taken, and permission must be granted, by oneself to oneself, to simply let it go and focus on something else. In other words, people who live their lives in a near-chronic state of anxiety are not facing constant or immediate danger. They just feel that they are. It’s kind of like being built for crisis, but not having enough crises to merit the anxiety needed to motivate oneself for action.
This can be fixed with a period of reprogramming the mind to recognize the degree to which one’s anxiety level is out of proportion to the objective reality one confronts each day. If you’re living life in twenty-first century civilization, and you feel you’re constantly in danger, chances are (unless you’re an international spy – I don’t know any of them) you’re probably not in danger at all. Yes, you might be uncomfortable. And perhaps you’re in need of some rational planning. But that doesn’t change the fact that advanced societies require less need to confront immediate, physical dangers. But they do place an added responsibility on the individual to plan and think long-range; to anticipate trouble and do whatever needs to be done to prevent it from arriving. Good examples could include bankruptcy, a bad marriage, or having children before one is ready.
The question I am most often asked 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 things differently. You’ve got to train yourself to stop anticipating danger around every corner, and instead look for opportunities to grow, survive and plan. It can take a long time and a lot of effort to reprogram your mind to these new habits, yet, in any single moment, you still retain the power to choose whether – or not – to think rationally.
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