I’m anxious. Most of my clients are anxious. Some of the most intelligent, loving, and talented people I know are anxious.
As if our natural inclinations weren’t enough, career change is basically a breeding ground for anxiety. Change is by definition new and unfamiliar. You won’t know what you want at first, and you have to spend some time in the dark until things become clear. And then, even when you do know what you’re aiming towards, you’re still swimming in uncertainty because you can’t possibly know how things will turn out.
So if you’re anxious, (1) welcome to the club, you have some great company, and (2) congratulations, you’re exactly where you should be.
The Two Most Common Reactions
There are pretty much two ways humans tend to respond to anxiety, both of which make it worse:
- We try to avoid it by taking action.
- We try to avoid it by not taking action.
I’m firmly in the first camp. When facing a new task or an unknown situation, my natural urge is to jump into action.
Recently this led me into a period of what could most accurately be called hysteria.
Faced with anxiety about the launch of yet another new offering (keep your eyes open for a special announcement about this soon, by the way), I did what I do naturally: I got good and doped up on perfectionism; began obsessively thinking about what I was going to do and how; and despite repeatedly telling my husband just how much I needed to rest, I added every possible task I could think of to my To Do list and filled my days with any productive activity I could find.
The result? Exhaustion, insomnia, irritability, and increasingly paralyzing levels of fear.
And lest you think those in the second camp have it any easier, I would invite you to talk to someone who has an equally challenging habit of procrastination. When faced with anxiety, procrastinators find creative ways to distract themselves and avoid taking action, seemingly remaining calm and carefree; beneath the surface, however, they feel all kinds of guilt, frustration, and often deep shame about not being able to take any action towards what they want, no matter how important it is.
The Negative Cycles
So on the one hand, those of us in camp #1 feel the edges of anxiety and respond by jumping into action.
The action may not be aligned with our Inner Wisdom, or it might be hasty and ill-timed. Regardless, we care more about getting stuff done than listening to what we need, so we end up exhausting ourselves.
Off-balance and depleted, we feel less powerful and more miserable than we did before, so we’re prone to feel even higher levels of anxiety, which makes us want to take on even more.
On the other hand, those of us in camp #2 avoid all this by not taking action at all when they feel anxious.
Instead, they get busy with other things, distract themselves, or find other ways to procrastinate. Part of them knows, however, knows that they’re not addressing something very important to them.
Off-balance and ashamed, they feel less powerful and more miserable than they did before, and—you guessed it—prone to even higher levels of anxiety, which makes them even less likely to take any action.
The Key to Dealing With Anxiety
I discovered the key to breaking this cycle with some (okay, a lot) of outside help. (Left to my own devices, I would probably be huddled in the corner somewhere right now reciting my To Do list in 20 different languages.)
What I found is that the key to cutting through anxiety is to stop listening to it.
In my last period of hysteria, every fiber in my being was screaming at me to do something—everything I possibly could—to try to feel like I had a handle on the situation. In other words, I was trying to do 5 million different things to make this edgy feeling go away. And none of them was working. In fact, they were all making it worse.
It turns out that the solution was much simpler. All I had to do was sit there, let the anxiety scream at me, ignore the voice that told me if I didn’t take action everything would fall apart, and not take any action.
It wasn’t easy, but when I chose not to listen to the anxiety, when I just allowed it to be there, it actually faded quite quickly. I was then free to do what I knew I needed: rest. When I did that, I felt much better. When I felt better, I felt more powerful. Suddenly things seemed a whole lot less frightening and a whole lot more manageable.
When we do what the anxiety is telling us to do, whether that’s trying to be perfect, worrying, and getting things done or distracting ourselves, numbing out, and avoiding action, we make it stronger. We buy into the fundamental misunderstanding of anxiety, which is that things have to be a certain way in order for us to be okay.
When we stop trying to make anxiety go away by doing what it tells us, we start to see the truth, which is that we’re always already okay. We begin to understand that it’s not our action or inaction, our feelings or external circumstances that keep us safe. We find that what keeps us safe is the strength, wisdom, compassion, guidance, and love we all have access to, regardless of how we feel or what’s happening around us.
The only problems we have are the ones we create when we call something a problem and anxiously try to avoid it, cutting ourselves off from our inner strength, guidance, and wisdom in the process.
So the next time you’re feeling anxious, notice what you want to do. Then see if you can do the opposite. See if you can stay with the anxiety long enough to see what it really is–a fleeting experience with no power to harm you.