tiger

But isn’t anxiety helpful, at times? you might ask. Doesn’t anxiety help me stay on top of my to-do list and otherwise manage my life, like a kick in the butt when I’m feeling lazy? Doesn’t it keep me out of trouble by reminding me what I urgently need to take care of?

Let’s see what Judson Brewer has to say about this question:

“Fear itself does not equal anxiety. Fear is an adaptive learning mechanism that helps us survive. Anxiety, on the other hand, is maladaptive; our thinking and planning brain spins out of control when it doesn’t have enough information.”
—Judson Brewer, Unwinding Anxiety

This is quite an interesting finding. Fear is not a bad thing, Brewer says. This is the famous saber-toothed tiger response. If one of those lovely creatures is in your vicinity, you get scared, and that prompts you to leave the scene. Fear is also good and helpful in everyday modern situations: Brewer gives the example of stepping into the street and noticing that a vehicle is bearing down on you, about to hit you. You get scared and hop back onto the sidewalk.

These are automatic responses that the brain has even without conscious thought. But what if you start ruminating about what might happen the next time you’re in the vicinity of a saber-toothed tiger or street? What if you start avoiding zoos and streets, because all you can think about is what might happen if you end up in a dangerous situation? That’s taking things too far. Sure, you will want to be careful in dangerous situations, such as when you are near a dangerous animal or street. (No jumping into the tiger pen! Look both ways before crossing a street!) But you don’t want an endless loop of worry that takes over your life. You don’t want to panic every time you think about a cat or a road. That’s why anxiety is harmful, while fear is helpful.

As for whether anxiety helps people manage their lives better, the answer is that it does not. You can have a to-do list without worrying obsessively over it. You can get things done without stressing about whether you are getting things done. In fact, as Brewer points out, procrastination is one way that anxiety over too much work manifests—clearly not a helpful state.

I can contend from personal experience that anxiety is unhelpful. I used to get worked up about every little thing. I wanted my future to go exactly as planned, and when it did not, or when there was any amount of uncertainty, I would flip out. Packing for a vacation or dressing for a social event would shred my brain—how would the vacation or social event turn out? I did not know, and this would lead me into a panic. I would rely on alcohol or excessive food consumption to try to calm myself—not an optimal pattern to get into.

Worse, I believed that all of this worrying was keeping me on my toes, helping me to be my best self. So I did not try to solve my anxiety problem, until the anxiety started to manifest in my body to a greater and greater degree, and things escalated to the point that my life fell apart around me.

There is a better way. There is a mind state in which one can live contentedly within the uncertainty of the future, while also calmly making plans to reach for the best outcomes.

What are your habitual mind states?