Fear is a response to a real and present danger and it always demands a decision about your next action: Fight or Flight? Are you going to turn-tail and run? Or are you going to stand your ground and fight back? Because of the immediacy of the threat we’re forced to quickly choose which action we’re going to take and then get on with it. NOW!
Worry and anxiety, though, arise as we respond to perceived threats that are much more vague, hard to define or somewhere off in the future. Instead of taking some kind of definitive and results-oriented action, we muddle about what’s going to happen to us and what, if anything, we should do. And the muddling goes on, and on, and on.
Paralyzed by worry
For example, I live on the southeast coast of the US. Every year, as summer winds down, hurricane season winds up along with the palpable anxiety that you can almost feel in the air. The problem with hurricanes is that you can see them coming for weeks ahead. It’s a slow-motion threat that gives you way too much time to think about all the horrible things that might happen. Everyone is glued to their screens watching the path and strength predictions from the various weather monitoring agencies. Are we watching the Navy Model? The American Model? The European Model? How about a conglomeration of them all? I’ve never inquired, but I’d be willing to bet that benzos prescriptions in the southeast spike every year from June to November.
Yet hurricanes, powerful as they can be, are pretty easy to prepare for: Have an emergency kit stocked with water, canned food, batteries and the other essentials that are listed on countless websites. Know the evacuation route you’ll take, should the order be given. Move your lawn furniture into the garage. Let your loved ones know where you’re heading.
Now you can relax
That’s it. Once you’ve taken those actions, you can relax, have a snooze, read a book, go for a walk… Anything but worry. Because from that point on, any anxiety that you expend is a complete waste and only makes you feel terrible, raises your blood pressure, increases your heart rate, makes you sweat, tremble, feel weak and tired, gives you headaches, heart palpitations, muscle aches and can result in a loss of libido.
There’s a delightful little piece called “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, it truly encompasses the perfect approach to anxiety with action:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
In the case of a hurricane, I can’t do anything to stop it coming but I can update the status of my emergency kit and move the furniture off my deck. Then I can stop worrying and get on with my life.
Two intelligent choices
One of the characteristics of worry is that we evaluate options, alternatives and choices over and over, endlessly weighing this against that. Then we go back and do it all again. The paralysis of anxiety bogs us down in the ceaseless cycle of analyze, plan, compare, doubt, repeat. In the face of any perceived threat, though, you have two intelligent choices: Do something or do nothing.
Doing something – anything – provides you with the benefit of results. If you get the result you want, the problem is solved. If you get a different result, you’ll at least have feedback and you can fine tune your action as you try something else. Doing nothing, on the other hand, provides you with the benefit of leisure, rest and relaxation.
Worry accomplishes nothing
The endless analysis and mentation of the worrier, though, lies somewhere in between. It consumes tremendous energy but produces no results. And it allows no leisure, rest or relaxation. In other words, it’s the worst possible option.
Johann Wolfgang van Goethe once wrote, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” There’s also an old axiom of success that says, “The universe rewards action.”
Action produces results
When you begin to take action, all manner of things begin to happen that work in your favor. The people around you recognize that you’re serious and those who want the same things align and want to team with you. You produce results, which show and teach you things that you couldn’t possibly learn from others, reading books, watching YouTube or endlessly analyzing the situation. You start to get feedback about how your actions can be made better, more efficient and faster. When you begin to take action you unleash and harness forces that you didn’t even know existed.
Everyone who has ever lived has faced challenges that had the potential to be worrying. Why do some people seem to be more adept at getting past these challenges than others? In Stephen Covey’s classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the very first habit is, “Be Proactive.” In other words, don’t sit and wait in reactive mode. Do something.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the face of the Great Depression, said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”