Many of us struggle with anxiety. At its core, anxiety is about fear. We are afraid of some bad thing happening in our life, so we avoid the thing we are afraid of. Or, we organize our life in such a way that we don’t have to come into contact with the thing we’re afraid of.
Over time, these processes can become almost automatic. We’re not even consciously making decisions anymore; avoidance is just part of our “normal operations.”
Experiment and See What Happens
Sometimes it can be helpful to slow ourselves down and reflect on this process. If we want to combat our anxiety, we need to do a little experiment in our lives. We need to actually experience the thing we are afraid of (rather than avoiding it) and see what happens. That last part (i.e., seeing what happens) is critical. We need to make a new connection in our mind.
Here’s a simple example that happened to me the other day. One of the things I’m trying to work on is to be less connected to email. My natural tendency is to be on email all the time, but this interferes with other important aspects of my life, such as spending time with my family or engaging in deep work. So, I’m trying to limit the amount of time that I’m on email. Ideally, my goal is to only check email once per day.
But I’m aware of some anxiety coming up for me when I do that. I have a fear that I’m missing something important, or have outstanding tasks that I’m not completing. These fears operate almost unconsciously—I’m not necessarily aware of them, but I feel a pull to check my email again.
The other day, I stuck with my goal and didn’t check email again (even though I felt a pull to). That was good, but the reflection on the consequences of my decision was equally important. The next day, when I checked my email, I realized I didn’t miss anything important. Everything was fine. In other words, the thing I was afraid of did not happen.
Repeat the Cycle
I will need to repeat this cycle several times: (1) doing the thing I’m afraid of and (2) recognizing that the feared thing did not happen, before the cycle of anxiety and avoidance is broken in my mind. But over time, I’m making a new connection in my brain. If you want to reduce your anxiety, try something similar and see what happens.