Generally speaking, we resist change. Change—even change for the better—is stressful, and we often are prone to stick with the headaches of the status quo rather than deal with the headaches of the unknown.
Remember, all emotion—including the anxiety arising from stress—is fuel. When we experience anxiety, we tend to express that emotional fuel via two behaviors: we attack (engage) or we run (disengage). You may remember learning about the flight or flight response in your Introduction to Psychology course. Both behaviors—engaging and disengaging—can be helpful or hurtful; it depends on how you choose to engage or disengage.
Engaging as a Helpful Behavior
Expressing the emotional energy of anxiety by engaging is helpful when we can attack the source of our stress without harming ourselves or those around us. For example, we can use the energy to anticipate, which means connecting with someone (a colleague, friend, or counselor) who has been through our dilemma before or understands it well enough to offer us support and direction. We can also use the energy to assert ourselves appropriately, which means communicating our thoughts and feelings clearly and consistently, using “I statements” (“I feel overwhelmed at the moment, and I think I need some time to calm down” versus “This job is freaking me out and something at work has to give.”). Setting clear boundaries by knowing when and how to say “no” is another example of asserting ourselves appropriately.
Engaging as a Hurtful Behavior
Not all expressions of engaging are helpful. Expressing the emotional energy of anxiety by engaging is hurtful when we harm ourselves or those around us in our attempts to alleviate our stress. For example, we might blame and attack others (“It’s fill-in-the-blank’s fault I’m in this mess. If he wasn’t such an idiot, I wouldn’t have to be dealing with this right now.”). Or, we blame and attack ourselves; taking ownership of our weaknesses—and eventual wellness—is essential, but when we wallow in self-loathing, we become our own worst enemy. Strategies like these may feel good in the moment by providing a momentary release and relief, but in the long run the damage done only adds difficulty to an already problematic situation.
Disengaging as a Helpful Behavior
Expressing the emotional energy of anxiety by disengaging is helpful when we withdraw from the source of our stress to reflect and recover without harming ourselves or those around us. For example, we may tap the energy to create time to be alone for reflection and perspective. A million-dollar question I encourage my patients to ponder in times of crisis is “What might I be doing to contribute to or sustain the problem?” The point of this type of reflection is not to encourage us to beat up on ourselves, but to position ourselves to focus on the variables over which we have the most control—those within us. Time in reflective meditation can also offer perspective: how big is this problem, really? How important will this issue be in my life next week? Next month? Next year? Five years from now? By considering problems in the context of a broader time frame, we can reduce the sense of crippling urgency that often accompanies our stressors.
Disengaging as a Hurtful Behavior
As with engaging, not all expressions of disengaging are helpful, either. When disengaging takes the form of apathy, denial, or refusal to acknowledge our own wrong-doing, we run the risk of harming others by failing to maintain a necessary level of investment in a problem’s resolution: “What do I care? I’m not making a difference anyway, so I’m just going to avoid the problem and act like nothing is wrong.”
Maintaining an awareness of whether your expressions of anxiety are helpful or hurtful can save a lot of heartache for everyone involved as you organize the changes you need to make to nurture your wellbeing. Will you view these challenges as a mess someone else created and then fall victim to resentment? Will you view these challenges as an obstacle that cannot be overcome and retreat into denial and apathy? Or will you understand these challenges as opportunities to nurture an abundant, full life? You make the choice.