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Making peace with anxiety, and doing Meaningful stuff anyway

I’ve always had some level of anxiety. At some points in my life it’s felt overwhelming.

Recently, I’ve changed with how I relate to it, and this has led to a real breakthrough in my ability to make peace with it, stop trying to fix it and focus instead on taking action that aligns with my values and takes me to the places I want to go.

I should expect to feel anxious, and It shouldn’t worry me

The tendency to pathologize pain and negative thoughts, to view them as them a stain to be eradicated, is something that we see advocated everywhere, both implicitly and explicitly.

Sadness, anxiety, pain. These are all natural and necessary parts of the human experience. It’s easy to forget that they have a purpose and that trying to get rid of them is like trying to get rid of pores on your face – societally encouraged, but an impossible and pointless activity that leads to despair.

Fighting against sadness and anxiety, pain, and critical thoughts, creates suffering. Just as struggling in quicksand (allegedly) makes you sink, so struggling against the natural existence of painful experience only adds a layer of distress.

Pain cannot be avoided, suffering can.

I can do things that matter to me, even when they scare me

One of the most common ways I managed my anxiety was to avoid things, and to distract myself. That meant I allowed the idea of some things to become much worse than the reality. It also meant I held back from doing things that scared me – even if they would benefit me.

If I’d allowed the fear to be there, but not struggled against it I would have actually been much less afraid in total. If I’d “felt the fear and done it anyway” I wouldn’t have walked away from so many opportunities to learn and grow.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. We hear the wisdom here, but so rarely take in the implications and learn from it.

How I flipped the struggle switch

Recently, I came across a very simple, very actionable protocol that has helped me to stop worrying about anxiety. It’s created a fire break that’s dissolved the reinforcing cycle of worry, and opened up a new set of tools to live with more peace and focus.

  1. Wake up (learn to separate my thoughts and feelings from my sense of self, take a curious, observational approach). 
  2. Loosen up (review my habitual responses to anxiety, look for alternatives, make space to step back from my feelings and not agitate over them). 
  3. Step up (take action that moves me closer to things I care about, develop a willingness to do what matters to me while bringing the painful thoughts or feelings along with me).

This is an approach that can be experienced with the help of a few simple, try-at-home activities. The great news is that it’s actually a bona fide therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and there are tons of resources available.

The one I used is The Little ACT Workbook.

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