⚡ Tackle vicious cycles of anxiety by accepting the fact that habit change happens slowly.

Scrabble pieces spelling out the word 'anxiety'Accepting anxiety — it helps. | Blog post by Rob Crews

Anxiety works in cycles — you feel anxious about something and try to solve it; when you can’t solve it, you become increasingly fixated on the problem. This makes you even more aware of the problem, causing a vicious cycle.

Oliver Burkeman’s recent article on putting worries into perspective provides a reminder of something that we all already know — that every worry that we’ve had in the past has eventually faded and that the worries we have now will fade just the same. He also introduces a helpful routine to really prove this to yourself — writing down your biggest worry every morning and then tracking how many days it takes before that old worry seems ridiculous.

Burkeman highlights the difficulty of being ‘present in the moment’ — a difficulty that anybody who has tried meditation will probably relate to. In my mind, this difficulty comes back to the dichotomy of control — the stoic idea (mentioned in Burkeman’s article) that anxiety is rooted in our attempts to affect things outside of your control.

When most people try to stay ‘present in the moment’, they try to maintain a blissful state of emptiness, unaffected by distractions (either internal or external). But the reality is that many of these distractions are outside of our control — either because we can’t stop our neighbour’s hyperactive puppy from barking or because we can’t stop negative or anxious thoughts from popping into our minds.

Rather than battling against these distractions, the answer — suggested both by Stoicism and Buddhism — is acceptance. When an anxious thought is accepted, the anxious cycle is interrupted — you’re able to stay in the present.

 

The two-pronged approach

My own attempts at dealing with anxiety have definitely taken a two-pronged approach. The first prong deals with the sources of anxiety, using routines similar to Burkeman’s to prove to myself that my worries are irrational — either because they’re based on false assumptions or because they’re simply outside of my control. The second prong deals with the fact that, despite all logic telling me that my anxieties are irrational, I still get anxious — the second prong is acceptance.

Both prongs are equally important. The first prong leads to long-term change in my thought processes, whilst the second prong allows me to accept the fact that this change is slow and painful.

The ability to accept the reappearance of anxiety comes from acknowledging the fact that habit change is slow — although the first prong works, it works at its own (leisurely) pace. I learnt this through painful experience — endlessly trying to exclude anxious thoughts and remove sources of anxiety with a click of my fingers — it didn’t work.

Habit change happens slowly. If you give yourself enough time, you can make big changes. In order to prove this, I suggest an extension of Burkeman’s routine. Looking back at worries from several months ago, try to put yourself in the shoes of your past self. Even if the worries seem laughable, try to understand how they didn’t feel laughable at the time. If you’re unable to comprehend how those worries bothered you at all, it’s a sure sign that you’ve come a long way.

 

Here’s another great article from Oliver Burkeman — why time management is ruining our lives.


Also published on Medium.