This is going to sound like the most confusing thing ever, but just hear me out.
Anxiety is rewarding.
There, I said it.
Please don't misunderstand, though. Anxiety is rewarding does not equal it's healthy to get lost in 'what if' thoughts that consume your life. It also does not equal don't give your brain time off because it likes to be worked 24/7/365.
No. So let me explain.
First off, anxiety is rewarding because there's this wonderful element of feeling productive. Seriously, there's an element of, "YES! I'm fixing things!!" when we get caught up in our minds, thinking about all of the things we have to do or problems we need to solve (those waiting for us at work, at home, with kids, with friends, with family - you name it). When we have anxiety and we get lost in our heads, we have this great feeling at the same time - one of productivity, protection (because we're thinking of all the worst-case scenarios), and planning (to do list for three days in advance, consider it done - #nailedit).
There's just something about letting our brain run free with reckless abandon that feels really freaking awesome.
Until it doesn't.
I mean, we love it until we don't. Am I right? Or do bears poo in the woods? I'm just kidding. Seriously, though. When we get caught up in our heads, thinking about all of the things we'd ever need to think about (your future great grandchildren and the cars they're going to drive), we feel good about planning, and then we get sidetracked into that spiral of horrible 'what if' thoughts.
What if their cars aren't as safe?
What if their cars fly and then they crash into a building?
What if their cars stop flying in mid-air?
What if they fly outside of the ozone layer?!
I'm being slightly ridiculous in my examples, but the reality is that anxious thoughts can be debilitating and really, really scary. They feel real and they're often accompanied by a sick thud of dread and a pervasive sense of doom. It's not fun and games to be in the throes of anxious thoughts. It is fun to plan and feel productive, but (again) we reach this other point. The point of feeling overwhelmed, uneasy, and scared of the future.
Here's the dilemma.
The alternative is something I recommend frequently to clients. More often than not. The alternative, however, isn't nearly as rewarding as the productive/protective/planning feeling we get from thinking a lot. The alternative is mindfulness.
And before you go thinking that it's about having an empty mind (it's not) and sitting Dalai Lama style on a pillow in 1000 degree heat (it's not that, either), please just hear me out.
Mindfulness is one of the most effective ways of alleviating anxiety. Seriously, it is. It changes your brain chemistry, increases well-being and satisfaction with life, decreases anxiety, and decreases depression.
Why, you ask, do people choose to not engage in mindfulness, even though there's plenty of research supporting its effectiveness with specific disorders and struggles? Well, my dear, I'd like to point you to the title of this post. Because anxiety is rewarding. And mindfulness is, quite frankly, a little bit hard for people who are used to (and thrive in) go-go-go mentality. Mindfulness is about creating an atmosphere of settling, of calm, or directing attention to the present moment - not of productivity, protection, or planning. Granted, you'll feel much safer (so to speak) when you do this practice regularly, but at first, it is absolutely hard to do.
Think about it. Rather than have you sit and focus on your breathing (a really simplified version of mindfulness, but I'm trying to make a point here), anxiety would have you run circles until you fall down exhausted. Anxiety doesn't want you to sit and breathe - it wants you to think about random possibilities that then release cortisol and adrenaline in your system, which give you that 'on edge' feeling, and then it wants to worry about those feelings because clearly something is wrong.
Silly anxiety. It just doesn't get it.
Anxiety is like a little kid who doesn't realize it's tired. The parent knows that their kid is tired, but the kid doesn't know. So then the kid runs around, picks fights, cries easily, and seems generally stressed out. When that happens, we know that we're supposed to step in and help little junior take a nap. When it's us, though, we don't see it the same way. We don't see that anxiety is actually that little kid. Do you want a little kid running your life? I love little kids, but I absolutely don't want one running my life.
That's what anxiety is up to.
And it's come time for high noon in this town. We say, "no more," I tell you. "NO. MORE."
But be prepared. Don't think that anxiety is going to go down without a fight (like that little kid - no way, no how). Here's some internal resistance you'll likely get when you start.
- You'll get fighting back (your anxious brain will kick and scream once you start a mindfulness practice).
- You'll get calm and then a relapse. The calm will feel good and then you'll think, "sweet - I'm good to go." IT'S A TRICK. That's anxiety tricking you into thinking you're good to go. KEEP UP THE PRACTICE.
- You'll get angry. "Why should I have to practice this every day (or x amount of times per week?!)"
- You'll make exceptions. "Well, just today I'll let this slide. I'm doing fine this morning anyway." IT'S A TRICK. Again, that's anxiety just trying to trick you. Don't let anxiety trick you.
- YOU'LL FEEL BETTER. Anxiety doesn't just come from thoughts, but this is a fantastic place to start. I promise you that.
As much as I love anxiety and think it serves a purpose, too much of it is no good. You can help yourself by treating your brain to a break every day for 10 easy minutes. I promise, it makes such a difference. Not a cure-all, but a significant difference in life so that you can show up more fully with the ones you love, at work, and with friends.