Action Reduces Anxiety


Lose This Day Loitering  

Lose this day loitering –’twill be the same story

To-morrow–and the next more dilatory;

Each indecision brings its own delays,

And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.

Are you in earnest?  

Seize this very minute–  

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.  

Only engage, and then the mind grows heated–  

Begin it, and then the work will be completed!   

 

~Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


Anxiety comes from fearful thoughts that you take as real.  Living in this fear can make it difficult to take action.  We think about what we need to do.  We plan for what needs to happen.  We berate ourselves for not getting things done.  The mind chatter thinking gives us the illusion of doing something, but thinking isn’t doing.  When we just think about things our anxiety and stress increases.  Our thinking makes the task feel bigger than it is.  We are not in the present moment when we are thinking about doing.

John was in his early twenties and wanted to go to college.  He was living with his parents after volunteering in the peace corps.  Before he could register, the local university required that he take an assessment to see where to place him for math and English.  The idea of taking this test triggered his anxiety.  “What if I fail?  What if I make a fool of myself?  What if I have a panic attack?  What if I am the oldest one there?  His mind chatter was racing with anxious thinking.  He was afraid of embarrassing himself.  He was sure he would be the oldest one in the test and others would be thinking, “Why is that old guy doing here taking this test?”  His anxiety held him on pause.

John would come into therapy with his plan for taking the test.  “I am going to go on Thursday right after work,” or “I can’t go until Monday because that is the only day that I can borrow my parents’ car.”  As each week came, he planned to take the test;  but as each week passed, he had failed to do so.  He had the illusion he was doing something because of the amount of energy he spent making plans to take the test.  The mental energy output was huge, but nothing ever happened.  All John accomplished was to feel more and more anxiety.

John’s story is not isolated to taking the assessment.  The fear of taking action stopped him from acting in most situations in his life.  John’s story is also not unique to him.  Over the years I have worked with hundreds of clients with anxiety who all get stumped by this fear of taking action.  Fear of applying for a job, fear of stopping for directions, fear of making phone calls, fear of going to re-hab, or fear of saying “I love you” are all examples of how anxiety leaves you frozen and unable to move forward.

The fear that holds you hostage is real.  This kind of fear uses your mind chatter as a bully to keep you stuck by saying things like you are going to look stupid or embarrass yourself.  It will do anything to get you to wait.  It leads you to procrastinate as you remain in a state of inaction.  It will use any excuse or line of reasoning that will work to keep you afraid to move forward.  If John went to take the assessment test, he could feel the fear through his whole body even though he couldn’t see, taste, or smell it.  This negative mind chatter tries to convince us that it is something outside of us that is the problem.  There was always a logical reason why he could not take the test.  But the problem isn’t anything within our circumstances.  It comes from within us.  This fear shows itself anytime we move towards our authentic self — that deepest truest part of us.

Steven Pressfield puts it this way in his book “War of Art” when he says, “Most of us have two lives.  The life we live, and the unlived life within us.  Between the two stands Resistance (fear of taking action).”  The abundant joyful life can remain unlived due to not taking action towards our hopes and dreams.

Opening this article is a dynamic poem by JohannWolfgang Von Goethe.  In his eighty-two years his list of pursuits seems almost endless.  He was a novelist, poet, journalist, painter, statesman, educator and philosopher.  This poem offers some of the answers to combat fear from holding us in perpetual pause.  He describes this state as “Each indecision brings its own delays.”  Then he asks the real question, “Are you in earnest?”  In other words, do you really want to move through your anxiety or are you satisfied being stuck in anxiety’s grip of fear.  You wouldn’t be reading this article right now if you weren’t serious about learning skills to get out of anxiety’s grip.  Goethe lets us in on his secret for living an abundant life of creative energy.  In the last line of the poem.

 


Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.  

Only engage, and then the mind grows heated–  

Begin it, and then the work will be completed!   


When you have the courage to start, the energy of moving forward keeps you going.  You don’t have to do the whole journey in one step, but you must begin.  You don’t have to commit to finish it, but you must begin.  John needed to begin his journey back to college by driving to campus and taking the test.  The ball would then be rolling to the next step.  Taking on the whole journey feels like too much, but you can do it one small step at a time.  I love that statement of “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”  Think of the power John would have felt if he had taken that test.  The feeling would have been nothing short of magical.

As an author, Steven Pressfield echoes this same sentiment when he says of his profession, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this:  It’s not the writing part that’s hard.  What’s hard is sitting down to write.  What keeps us from sitting down is resistance.”

To overcome fear, take a step.  That is it — have the courage and boldness to take a single step.  If you see it as just one step you can usually have enough boldness to move.  Carrying the whole journey emotionally on your back is just too heavy.  It is the weight that freezes you into pausing or procrastinating. When you take that one step it is as the poem says, “Only engage, and then the mind grows heated”.  Just begin with that first step and don’t worry about the rest.  The energy will then move you forward.  The step in front of you is doable.

In the closing weeks of his first semester of college, my son sat at the table in our kitchen with his hands over his bent head as he moaned in despair.  He described the intense stress he felt from the papers he had due and the final exams he had coming up.  He described the pressure he felt.  I was all too familiar with this kind of pressure because I attended graduate school while working and raising five children. He said that he just couldn’t take it and was going to de-stress by playing some video games.  I asked him what assignment was due next.  He said that he had a certain paper due but that he didn’t have time to do it as he needed to be in class in a couple of hours.  I challenged him to turn on the computer and just begin the paper.

I explained how he could take his assignments one small step at a time.  He only needed to worry about the step in front of him and didn’t need to emotionally and mentally carry them all at once.  He argued that the stress was too much.  I explained that if he took action he would experience a reduction in stress.  However, if he played video games right then he would temporarily be distracted, but overall he would increase his feelings of stress.  He agreed to give it a try.  He turned on the computer and worked on his paper for an hour before he went to class.  He came home very excited.  He said that he couldn’t believe the difference in how he felt by just getting started on the assignments.  With teenage enthusiasm he exclaimed what a miracle that “just begin & take one step at a time thing” was.  He was learning that doing decreases anxiety.  Thinking about doing increases anxiety.

My son was excited because he felt the empowered feelings that taking action brings as he took one small step forward.  These good feelings were in stark contrast to the powerlessness he had previously felt when procrastinating. My son was so excited about the freedom and energy he experienced from doing what was before him that he wanted to share this little miracle of magic with all his friends.  Taking action is a part of living in the here and now.  You cannot go back and redo the actions of the past.  You can plan for the future, but you can only take the action in the present moment to bring about those plans.  (See Healthy Living – Learn, Plan &Live)

An area of clarification here can be helpful.  Action for action’s sake isn’t what reduces the anxiety. There is a difference between activity and productivity.  If my son had played video games he would have been actively doing something, but the game was a means of disengaging from what he needed to do.  Playing the game at that time would not have been productive towards reducing his stress. In addition, perpetual doing as a means of proving your worth and value is not productive action.  Sometimes people use perpetual doing as an anxious measure to try to answer that place inside that feels empty.  They think, “If I just do more and more and more then I will fill this empty place inside” (See Anxiety “Inherent Worth of the Human Soul”).  There is a balance of “being” (See Anxiety  “The Power of BEING”) and doing.  The action we are talking about for this article is productive action which moves you in the area of creativity, healthy living, and accomplishing needful tasks.

Take the first small step and the energy will move you forward.

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Related Reading:
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Wisdom Through the Ages by Wayne Dyer

Cindy Lee, LCSW, RPT-S; Clinical Director at Empowered Life Solutions

“Every life has a purpose our mission is to help you find yours.”