Many of the people whom I work with tell me that anxiety is an issue for them and the smooth running of their lives. Most often it's unpleasant and arises only in moments where we are under stress, for example bumping into an ex-partner in public for the first time after a break-up, or giving a presentation at an interview. Maybe trepidation around starting a new job, or watching our children go to school for the first time.
But some clients come to therapy when anxiety has become such an issue, such a crippling influence on how they live their days, that I meet them in crisis. In a place where they can't leave the house or meet friends any longer. Where they can no longer do their jobs or manage their responsibilities and need to rely on others to support them and their needs.
I was reminded of this recently when watching a documentary called "Minimalism: a documentary on the important things". https://minimalismfilm.com/. In it there is a section where Dan Harris - ABC News anchorman talks about his own anxiety and the experience of having a panic attack live on-air. You can see the excerpt of his experience here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0doY89Z28o.
He goes on to talk about his own efforts around managing his anxiety and using mindfulness and meditation as a constructive tool. About the kind of worry that he calls "constructive anguish" - the worry that helps us to get to the airport on time, or means that we prepare and over-prepare for that interview, talking to ourselves in the mirror of frantically searching Glassdoor.co.uk for tips on passing the interview questions for a specific company. That's the kind of anxiety that works for us, sharpens our senses and helps us to be where we need to be, when we need to be there.
But what about what Harris calls "pointless rumination"? The worry and thoughts that we might have about the same issues, but that don't help us but hinder us. The level of distress and fear that we experience in a panic attack or when our worries spiral out of control and we behave in a way that we would prefer not to. Where we act irrationally or linger on thoughts that hurt us.
Do you identify with any of these descriptions of anxiety? I wonder whether Harris' own account of a meeting where he discussed this with his meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein might be illuminating:
"He said “Yes, you have to worry because that makes sense in order to function effectively. However, on the 17th time when you’re worrying about that same thing, maybe ask yourself one simple question: ‘Is it useful?’“
At some point, you have thought it through sufficiently and it’s time to move on. What I have learned how to do as a result of meditation is to draw the line between what I call “constructive anguish” and “unconstructive rumination” and that’s made me a lot happier."
So where does that leave us? Where do you draw the line on your worry?
Let me know in the comments.
Laura is an online talking therapist and writer specialising in working with millennials and the LGBTQI+ community.