Perhaps you agree to give a presentation, play the piano for your friend’s wedding, or go on a trip to a foreign country. Not long after you commit you are filled with anxiety and wish you had never agreed. Maybe even leaving your house causes you anguish, worrying about what others think of you. In these situations you are worrying about an event that has not happened, but might happen.
When you suffer from a life event that could have been avoided, you may be angry with yourself. For example, whenever you lose a loved pet or experience the break up of a relationship, you might say, “Never again. It’s not worth it.” You worry about feeling that pain in the future.
Anxiety vs. Fear
Anxiety depends on the past and the future for its existence. If you think about events going wrong in the future, you will likely feel anxious. If you think about past events that have gone wrong you may be depressed or anxious.
Wilson and Dufrene (2010) point out that anxiety is really out of place in the present moment.If something is going wrong right now, it is unlikely that you are anxious about it. If the problem is in the present, you probably feel fear. Fear is a useful emotion. Fear helps you take action that you need to take, like running from gunfire or getting to work on time when people who are late are being fired.
Fear based on facts is helpful for problem solving and safety. Anxiety about future events that have not happened and may not happen is usually not useful. Anxiety and worry typically increase your suffering and may lead you to avoid doing what you want to do with your life.
Why Not Avoid?
Why not avoid? Why would you adopt another pet? Why would you agree to go on a trip with someone you love, when you know you will worry? The reason may be that what causes you the most suffering in life is usually exactly what matters to you most. So when you avoid what causes you suffering, you may be avoiding your life.
If you are fearful of what people say about you, you may play each day safe. Instead of wearing the hot pink you love, you go for beige. You blend in rather than sing loudly. If you fear rejection you may hold back from friendships and not engage in opportunities to love someone. You may say you are keeping yourself safe, but there is a difference between keeping yourself safe and avoiding events that might involve painful emotional experiences and thus avoiding living your life.
Keeping yourself safe means you are not putting yourself in situations that are truly dangerous. Not walking into a store that is being robbed is keeping yourself safe based on facts.
You avoid when you don’t do an activity because something unpleasant might happen. If you go to the party, you might be rejected, so you don’t go. If you try an art class, someone might say you have no talent, so you stay home. You avoid even events or activities that are important to you in order to not feel anxious. Once you decide not to do the feared activity, your anxiety goes down. Avoidance can become a way of coping with anxiety.
If you avoid situations that make you anxious, then you will feel less anxious. So sometimes the number of situations you avoid gets larger over time. You avoid taking an art class, you avoid going to the mall, and then you avoid going to the grocery store. At some point you may avoid being around people you don’t know well. You make decisions based on how to avoid feeling anxious.
Mindfulness and Anxiety
Wilson and Dufrene suggest that mindfulness can help you consider worry and anxiety as lapses in mindfulness, as being out of touch with the present moment. Anxiety cannot exist when you are living in the present moment. They also suggest that you separate yourself from the stories you tell yourself about what might happen in the future. Sometimes we take the stories we tell ourselves literally, as being the truth of a situation. Recognizing that what you imagine might happen is just a story you are telling yourself can help you not get absorbed in the story as being reality.
Perhaps you are thinking that someone could reject you and a pet could die. In fact, the things you worry about do happen sometimes. That is true. But how effective are your anxious thoughts in helping you live the life you want to lead? It may be that you accept that you have the worries and that you stay in the moment, making choices that get you closer to the life you want.
Wilson, Kelly G. and Dufrene, Troy. Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, 2010.