This is a tough one, because as someone who struggles with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I know that I have a high anxious base.
I know that the catastrophic thoughts and worse-case-scenarios are largely made up in my own imagination and not at all likely to happen.
I know this.
But sometimes I feel that I can’t completely trust the way I feel.
I often wonder if my anxiety is my intuition trying to keep me safe from a legitimate danger, or if my fear and worry stems from nothing more than the product of a faulty brain.
So how can you tell if you should listen to your anxiety, or ignore it?
Here are a few ways to interpret anxiety:
1) Is your anxiety preventing you from doing something that you want to do?
If so, you can bet that your anxiety is sabotaging your life, and that you should probably go ahead and do the thing you want to do.
Starting a business, changing careers, taking a trip, getting on that zipline, or moving to a different city (or country) are all things that cause anxiety.
But they are also life events that help you grow, increase life satisfaction, and give you a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Sure, we conjure up thoughts of failure. We imagine ourselves bankrupt, homeless, jobless, penniless – or the zipline snapping, hurdling us into the ground at 80 miles-per-hour – but the key thing is these scenarios are in our imaginations, and aren’t our reality.
I heard it said once that if you feel fear about going in a direction you want to go in life, that that’s most likely the right direction to go.
Anxiety can keep us stuck in our comfort zone. But your comfort zone rarely leads to a fulfilled life.
So if you want to change your life, if you feel like there is more that you want out of your life, but your anxiety is holding you back, then work on your anxiety so that you can live a life you truly want to live.
As hard as it is, learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Build up your tolerance to uncertainty, which can only be done by having uncertainties in your life.
2) Is your anxiety about something that could happen, or about something that IS happening?
Worrying that you will go bankrupt or end up homeless when you are far from facing that situation is the hallmark of having an anxiety disorder.
If it hasn’t happened yet, or it’s not imminent, or you’re just projecting worry into the far, uncertain future, then it’s probably just anxiety.
However, if you are not sure how you’ll pay the rent or put food on the table, or if you’re facing layoffs at work, or waiting to hear back about a biopsy, that anxiety is quite normal.
Anybody would feel anxiety about these situations, and if you have an anxiety disorder, you’ll probably feel it more keenly than somebody who doesn’t, but that doesn’t make your anxiety any less valid.
3) Is the anxiety productive or unproductive?
Another way to put this is: “Is there something I can do about this anxious situation right now, and if so, would it improve my day-to-day life?”
Sometimes anxiety hijacks my imagination and forces me to dwell on how awful it would be to have cancer, or a debilitating, neurological disease.
Or I worry that in a year or two, business will dry up and I’ll be bankrupt, penniless, and lose my home.
This is unproductive anxiety because worrying about something that hasn’t happened, and may never happen, drains your energy and hijacks your mental focus away from being productive.
In these situations, my anxiety is created by using my imagination to create fictional scenarios that haven’t happened, and probably won’t happen.
There is nothing I can really do to prevent cancer or business failure other than eating healthy, exercising, keeping stress down (as much as possible), and putting in consistent effort on my business – that means actually doing work and not binge-watching Game Of Thrones.
But is there something I could do right this minute – or today – that would prevent cancer or business failure? Not really. So worrying about either is unproductive.
On the other hand, I might feel anxious about my website getting hacked. Or maybe I’m anxious about a strange sound coming from the furnace.
This is productive anxiety, in that there is probably a legitimate concern that can be addressed. And whether or not the anxiety is warranted, taking action makes an improvement.
Setting up stricter security on my website only makes it less likely to be hacked in the future, even if the risk is minimal to begin with.
Getting the furnace looked at makes it much less likely that I’ll wake up in the middle of winter to a freezing house, even though it’s still running fine right now.
Of course, there’s a fine line here. Letting anxiety about the furnace drive me to call a furnace technician to check it out is fine.
But obsessively worrying about the furnace blowing up and burning the house down, even though there is nothing wrong with it, is not productive.
And anxiety about health that motivates you to clean up your diet, avoid added sugars, lose weight, and exercise – all that is good, too, so long as it doesn’t become an obsession where your diet and food choices dictate your life.
But Your Feelings Are Real…
Even though your anxiety might be about something that isn’t likely to happen, what you are feeling is real.
So don’t read this and think that I’m trying to “poo-poo” your anxiety.
I go through the same things, and honestly, it does help when I stop accepting my anxious thoughts and begin to challenge them.
Don’t let people dismiss your anxious thoughts as being “all in your head”, or have them tell you to “just chill out”.
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, what you feel is real, and it makes you suffer both mentally and physically.
But, at the same time, don’t let your anxiety go unchallenged. Make a conscious effort to work on your anxiety so that it doesn’t run your life.