The good thing about engaging in the things we enjoy doing, is it allows us to stop checking in/ruminating over our anxiety. When we take our attention away from anxiety, and keep doing this, we can allow our nervous system to start the process of desensitisation. This takes practice and patience because checking in to see if our anxiety is still there has become a habit.
However, it’s very important that we have a certain kind of mindset when we are engaging in activities otherwise we will end up getting into a state of resistance which will make the things we do unenjoyable.
From my own experience, I always had the mentality of doing something to “feel better.”
The problem with this mentality is that as a paradox, you automatically become more aware of your anxiety by trying to overcome it. What do I mean? There’s a term called paradoxical intention and that means the very act of going about overcoming something keeps it in place.
If I told you to ignore or stop thinking about a certain thought, what are the chances you would actually succeed with this approach? It’s pretty much a guarantee to think the thought when I tell you not to think of it. Whilst you might be able to do this temporarily, it doesn’t take long for your thoughts to resurface, this is because the act of suppressing something creates the opposite effect.
Using the beach ball analogy, you’ll know just how much of a struggle it gets after a while of holding the ball under the surface of the water. Due to the nature of physics, the ball rushes up through the surface and shoots into the air, usually, if we’re unlucky, it hits us in the face! This is because the force we use to hold the beach ball under water is cancelled out by the force of gravity.
The same sort of effect happens when we are trying to distract and force our anxiety out of our mind. Every time we try and block out anxiety, every time we have the intention of getting over anxiety when doing something, we are making our anxiety worse.
So, what should I do instead then?
Still participate in the things you enjoy doing, but stop trying to push your thoughts and feelings away when doing them. Completely give up all of your control and desire to get rid of your thoughts and feelings. If you try and get rid of them, they will stay for longer because you’re creating resistance with this approach and whatever we resist, persists.
You’ll have more chance of taking your focus off of your anxiety through occupying your mind by allowing your thoughts and sensations to be. Keep reminding yourself that you are safe and that the thoughts and sensations are completely harmless.
For years I went around hoping that doing something like painting or playing guitar would help me to stop focusing on anxiety. It did help but having the intention of overcoming anxiety through doing hobbies didn’t. When we are associating the hobbies with anxiety, we then become fixated on our anxious state due to the intention of trying to get rid of it.
Instead of seeing activities as a way to overcome anxiety (counter-productive approach), see them as an opportunity to express your creativity. An opportunity to have fun and enrich your imagination. If even having this sort of intention behind doing stuff is counter-productive, just drop all expectations and just do them because you like to.
No longer care if the anxiety is there or not
Checking in can also be reduced my completely shifting our attitude from trying to feel better to no longer caring or intending to. When we no longer try to feel different from the way we do, we short circuit the resistance loop.
It’s this constant rumination and self analysis about our anxiety that gives it more energy and importance. These behaviours can be dramatically reduced by no longer caring whether the anxiety is still present or not.
Getting into the flow
Have you ever heard of the flow state? This is when we are so focused on something that we momentarily forget everything else. Our attention is so absorbed in a task or activity that we temporarily forget any kind of thought generated problem.
During anxiety, especially when we are in the depths of it, it’s very rare to enter a state of flow whilst engaging with something. Again, this is probably because we are trying so hard to suppress or not feel anxious. Because of this approach, it’s not surprising why we are constantly checking in to see if the anxiety is still there or not. Therefore, getting into the flow state is pretty much an impossible task when we are not allowing our anxiety to be.
This is when complete and utter acceptance comes in as Claire Weekes would say.
The approach which I believe you’ll find the most effective is by not trying to get rid of the anxiety through activity immersion but by doing the activities anyway with no agenda in mind.
Instead of participating in your hobbies with the sheer intention to feel non-anxious, just do them because you enjoy doing them. See how this change in attitude feels…
Just another thing, whenever an anxious thought or sensation shows up (which it inevitably will) when you’re engaging your mind, instead of getting frustrated or panic (remember you don’t need to panic because you’re completely safe), just remind yourself that no harm is coming to you and practice allowing whatever it is you’re feeling or thinking to be present whilst you gently refocus your attention on the activity. It’s almost as if you’re allowing the anxiety to sit beside you (making peace with it) whilst you are carrying on enjoying yourself. Rinse and repeat with this approach and see how it goes.
Hopefully adopting this approach when engaged in an activity will help you to enjoy it a lot more than you would if you were actively trying to stop feeling or thinking anxious.
Until next time