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Weekly 3: Learning from your anxiety


Idea Journal Weekly 3

May 26 · Issue #88 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Single-task. Change your view of anxiety. Choose the right audience for your work. (~6 min read)
Note: Idea #2 is taken from a previous issue, and we’ve included it here because it fits well with the core theme: learning from your anxiety.

#1. See anxiety as an opportunity for growth
Meditation expert Leo Babauta writes on his blog that we can use those times when we feel anxious as opportunities to practice being more present.
As Babauta notes, we often feel anxious because we’re thinking about our uncertain future.
But instead of feeling overwhelmed by all the future possibilities, what if you immersed yourself in a single activity that you need to accomplish?
When you start an activity, turn your full attention to it and try to do nothing but that activity. Reply to a single email. Give someone your full attention. Just walk.
Babuata acknowledges that this is easier said than done. Most of us are more likely to be jumping between tasks in a web browser, thinking about something else while someone is talking to us, or taking some routine task for granted.
But focusing on a single activity is possible. If you find yourself getting distracted, or starting down a pattern of judgement, resentment, or another negative emotion while you’re doing the activity, simply notice it. You can then return to being present in the activity.
For Babauta, the benefits go beyond reducing your anxiety: “As we give each activity our full loving attention, we start to appreciate each person, each object, everything around us as something worthy of respect, love, and gratitude.”
#2. Reframe your thoughts about anxiety to lessen its effects
In an episode of his podcast Making Sense, neuroscientist and mindfulness expert Sam Harris recommends 2 ways of shifting your perspective of anxiety to help you better deal with it:
1. Reframe the problem:
For example, many people are afraid to fly, and even those of us who enjoy flying can feel anxious in significant turbulence.
But ask yourself: Is it rational to worry that your plane will crash if you’re experiencing turbulence?
Given how relatively rare plane crashes are, flying might be the safest part of your trip.
During your journey, you should be more worried as you’re getting into a taxi, or as you’re walking in a crosswalk while fixated on your smartphone. These are the moments “when sweat should be beading up on your forehead.”
Once you take this perspective, you can simply experience the turbulence, and cease to interpret it as a sign of actual danger.
2. Reframe anxiety itself:
The other perspective is to become mindful of the feeling of anxiety itself: What is it? What does it mean?
As Harris notes, anxiety is just “a pattern of energy and it actually doesn’t mean anything at the level of raw sensation.”
Your thoughts about that sensation might be negative, but the feeling itself is often indistinguishable from the feeling of excitement: How do you know the difference between being anxious about something and being excited?
For the most part, it’s your thoughts that frame how you feel about that same sensation.
Harris argues that the best way to respond to normal anxiety is to become willing to feel it, and to continue functioning even as it’s happening.
It will eventually pass: “Anxiety rises and falls like any other emotion, and if you’re not continually thinking the thoughts that make you anxious, it actually can’t stay around very long.”
#3. Which outlet do you choose when you're anxious?
Author Steven Pressfield writes in his book The War of Art that individuals define themselves in one of two ways: by their rank within a hierarchy, or by their connection to a familiar territory.
For Pressfield, it’s important to know whether we’re doing our creative work hierarchically or territorially: Are we doing it more for others, or more for ourselves?
Many of us define ourselves hierarchically and don’t even realize it. It’s hard not to. School, advertising, and much of our culture drills us from birth to define ourselves by others’ opinions: “Drink this beer, get this job, look this way and everyone will love you.”
This hierarchical orientation forces us to look outward – it bends our efforts toward the approval of others.
We wonder if what we create will play well with the audience. Or when meeting someone new, we ask ourselves: What can this person do for me? How will they advance my standing?
On the other hand, a territory is like a psychological home turf. It’s the context in which our efforts feel most natural – it represents the work we would do even if no one was watching.
For example, Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. Pressfield’s own territory is the act of him sitting down to write.
One way to tell if your orientation is hierarchical or territorial is to ask yourself: If you were feeling especially anxious, what would you do?
Would you contact six friends, one after the other, aiming to hear their voices and feel reassured that they still love you?
In that case, you’re operating hierarchically – you’re seeking the good opinion of others.
But as Pressfield notes, if your orientation is territorial, your reaction to the anxiety might look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s: “He wouldn’t phone his buddies; he’d head for the gym. He wouldn’t care if the place was empty … He knows that working out, all by itself, is enough to bring him back to his center.“
Quote of the Week
“There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. ”
- Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger in his book Letters from a Stoic
Idea Journal
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