An Answer to Anxiety
by Cory Allen
Why do people feel like lightning strikes their nerves once (or fifty) times a day? Because being aware that you’re alive can be terrifying.
You can’t even define life without that rascal death showing up and dropping a period on the sentence.
We humans are in an odd situation. Our species spent millions of years evolving, so that we’d be well-suited to deal with the natural world. Somewhere along the way we became self-aware. This was an evolutionary helping hand.
People became self-focused through the utility of nature because it helped us get by in the wild. It made us be on the lookout for dangerous possibilities in the natural world that could leap out at any moment. Being able to expect what might be lurking in the distance is pretty useful for someone that wants to go on living.
For example: imagine a half-ape person strolling through the forest. They notice a tree falling right in their path. Because they're self-aware, they can see what might happen next, and hit the brakes. This allows the tree to fall in front of them, and keeps them from getting squashed into a paste.
As for the half-apes that didn’t evolve this trait, well, they didn’t make it. They kept walking, the tree fell on their head, and they got bred out of existence. The falling tree let them know they weren’t suited to the dynamics of this planet.
This moment in the timeline of human brain evolution seems pretty balanced. The evolved parts of our brain were operating well with our old primate brain functions. But, good things don’t last forever. Civilizations continued to emerge and the human brain had to go on changing so that it could keep up.
The birth of cities made life frantic and our brains kept trying to adapt to the density of information. The mind did this to protect itself. No matter how it seems, our earnest primal hardware is always trying to help us out. Even if it reacts to life like a scared, hungry, or horny ape sometimes.
A hundred or so years ago the density that surrounded people became more than they could deal with. Thanks a lot, Industrial Revolution! The amount of events that people encountered outnumbered the “potential threats” they could track.
Understanding more is happening than we can keep track of makes our system overload. This type of thing sets off our mental buzzers and physical alarm bells. Hello, feeling of intense worry.
People want to be mentally prepared for the chance that life throws their way. It makes them feel safe. But there’s a rub: we can’t be ready for everything and our intuition knows that it isn’t possible. The subtle awareness that we cannot prepare for the twists of life forces us to submit to the chaos of nature.
When a person slips up and acknowledges that the universe is bigger than them it can make their logic tap out. The overwhelming amount of potentials in life become real threats.
Why does this happen? What’s going on here? Get me a shot of whiskey, now!
I'll tell you what’s going on. The logic that once made a person feel protected has popped.
People spend a lot of time feeling if they prepare for what might happen next they can manage life’s potentials. It’s only a matter of enough time going by for one to see that they can’t keep the chaos of life in their heads and under control. This causes a person to feel unprepared. When a person comes to terms with the fact that there are unknowns, they begin imagining as many of them as they can.
Threats must be lurking everywhere
Ah, there’s that good feeling of anxiety roaming wild, with no context. Good, organic, gluten free, all-natural dread.
Of course, when someone feels anxiety they attach it to an event, thing, or person. Doing this is how people assign a general feeling of worry to a single thing. Compartmentalizing worry helps one trick themselves into believing they have it under control. They feel all will be good as long as they can manage the thing they assign their anxiety to.
Collapsing your anxiety onto one thing may seem like a good way to cope. It’s not. It fills daily life with a feeling of impending doom. You can’t place all your anxiety eggs in one basket. If you do, the mind will have to work all day to connect dots that aren’t there. It has to keep proving to itself that the initial reason for your anxiety is correct.
This type of thing makes it tough to live without eating your fingernails down to the wrist. But hey, why not add smartphones, internet, social media and geopolitical nervous breakdowns?
The amount of data modern humans has to reckon with is impossible to manage. Our biological mainframes are not set up to deal with the amount of information that’s coming our way. Trying to keep track of the information that comes at you each day is like trying to memorize all 543,709 words of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The human mind can’t do it.
Worrying about unknown potentials is a symptom of having a human brain in a modern society. Anxiety, at its core, is an idea that is one piece of information short from proven.
That is why intelligent and creative people tend to suffer from anxiety (I bet that describes you). They have the imagination to come up with scenarios and the mental bandwidth to connect them.
People tend to get trapped in a behavioral cycle that creates a narrative of anxiety. Once an “unknown potential” proves to be safe, they waste no time assigning the anxiety to a new “unknown.” It's like they keep passing a hot potato of worry into the future so there’s always something to stress about.
Life doesn’t have to be this way. As a matter of fact, the same thing that got people into this situation can get them out. The mind.
Viewing anxiety from the outside can help show what’s actually going on when a person suffers from worry.
How about we take the anxiety down a few notches? It’s had its way with humans for far too long and I don't like my fellow ape-people get pushed around from the inside.
Let’s start by watching anxiety on a physical level.
Imagine you’re sitting on a couch by yourself and you start to feel anxiety. Say you began thinking about what's going on at work, how your upcoming first date is going go down, or how you’ll manage to finish your giant to-do list.
Whatever the cause might be, once the thought hits your brain, you start chewing on it and feel anxious. Your heart beats fast, palms sweat, breath becomes shallow, and shoulders get tight. The thought zaps your nerves with a car battery for five minutes. Then your mind wanders onto something else and you forget to worry.
That’s a lovely scene in which anybody can picture themselves being the lead actor. But, imagine if there was a camera in that room filming you the entire time. What actually happened during that five minutes of suffering?
Nothing. You were sitting there on the couch making a variety of contorted faces and cringing while your mind spun out. The suffering was only a process of thinking that entered and exited.
Now, apply this outside perspective to all anxieties in life. If you do this, you can see that nothing is actually happening in the world when worry takes over. The whole situation takes place in the mind. Anxiety is an act of waiting for something to happen and the mind torturing you in the meantime.
The anxiety a person feels isn’t their fault. Why would it be? That’s like saying it is your fault that your eyes are brown. No one wants to feel negative emotions. They happen on their own.
It's true that a person can’t control the onset of negative emotions, but they can take steps to deal with them.
Let’s reset the body before we go over ways to question your anxiety into oblivion. Below are simple and effective ways of getting expansion back into a body that’s clenched from worry.
As a general rule: remember to let the actual feeling of anxiety be the reminder to reset your body.
Relax your shoulders, face muscles and jaw. This is a prime location for stress-related clenching. When you feel anxious, I'll bet these areas clench up like you’re in a rainstorm without an umbrella.
Slow your breathing. Anxiety dumps adrenaline into your bloodstream. This makes your heart race and your breathing shallow. While good for running from a genuine physical threat it is not so good for feeling calm. So, start taking slow and deep breaths to reset your breathing patterns.
Get curious for a moment about what you’re feeling in your body. Notice how bizarre it is that your mind can cause a stressful physical response when nothing threatening is happening around you.
Alright. Those methods should help your body tension chill when the time comes.
Let's rock some self-inquiry.
Stop. Identify the problem. Ask yourself: What am I worried about?
Once you figure out what's causing the worry, write the problem down. State it in twenty words or less. Writing the problem down is helpful. It forces you to articulate your thought and makes the problem clear. That way, the problem can’t shift into something else in your head. The truth of what is causing you worry becomes undeniable.
Look at the problem and ask yourself: Can I do something about this?
Do you believe you can fix what is causing your anxiety? Good. Write down the steps you’ll need to take to do so. Simplify. Make the steps as straightforward as possible. Each step should be twenty words or less.
You can then follow the steps necessary, one by one, and begin to untie the strings of what is causing you worry.
If you determine the cause of your worry is out of your control, then you (by definition) cannot do anything about it. So, there is no reason to sit there and worry because this means you don’t have the full story about what’s going on. If you did, then you would be able to define a solution and resolve the worry.
But you don’t and you can’t. Don’t worry (ha ha), this situation is more natural than you might realize.
Feeling that way means you’re worried about an unknown potential. This is what happens when you become aware of how the bits fit together to create the narrative of your life. You are thinking about the bits before they arrive in your life. The idea of how they might shape the future is freaking you out.
If you step back and think about your past, how many times did life turn out exactly how you thought it would? I would imagine very, very few. It isn’t possible to know what’s going to happen next in life because there are too many random factors to account for. That’s why life surprises us. The way our story unfolds is beyond our imagination because we can't account for the randomness of existence.
Accepting the surprises of life as they come will peel away a huge layer of worry from the daily grind. Stuff happens. Big deal. Hasn’t killed you yet. You can deal with whatever shows up.
Accepting life as it comes might sound hard, idealized, ridiculous and even impossible. But here’s a naughty little secret that your mind doesn’t want you to know: you’re already doing it.
You always have been.
Think about it. Even picture yourself experiencing your life from the outside. Everything you have encountered has come at you in unexpected ways. Regardless of your mindset at the time, you faced every situation, dealt with them as they came, and moved on.
Life changes when you look at it from different angles. Anxiety is a case of trying to look around the corner of a building while you’re still twenty feet away. The human mind can’t do it and it’s only going to strain if it tries.
Our nature is to enjoy the walk to the corner of the building and then check out what’s waiting for us when we get there.