Source: Joyce Kelly/Unsplash
Whether you’re anxiety-prone by nature or temporarily have heightened anxiety, it can be exhausting. Here, I explain the reasons why so you can better understand your inner experience. At the end of the post, I’ll include some specific techniques for handling this problem that are derived from psychotherapy.
Why anxiety can be depleting:
1. Your mental downtime gets filled with planning ahead.
A strength of anxious people is that they never only have a plan A. They also have a plan B, C, and Z. This is especially true for people whose anxiety is paired with also being conscientious.
In situations in which other people are letting their minds wander to happy thoughts, or are paying mindful attention to their surroundings and who they are with, or they’re just zoning out, you may find yourself mentally planning ahead. For example, when I’m driving, I’m almost always thinking ahead. In contrast, I sometimes ask my spouse what she’s thinking about at a particular moment, and she says “nothing.” I rarely recall times I’m thinking about nothing!
2. Opportunities for relaxation and rejuvenation are marred by overthinking.
On a similar theme, you may find that when you do something that’s deliberately for the purpose of relaxing (like walking in nature or floating in a swimming pool), you end up overthinking about other issues going on in your life. You cut yourself off from the benefits of relaxation.
When we’re stressed, we need extra recovery time, but you’ll get less recovery if your brain jumps to overthinking during opportunities for mindful rejuvenation.
3. You think about 20 things that could go wrong for every one thing that actually does.
There’s a well-known Mark Twain quote: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Anxious people prepare for many scenarios, only a few of which eventuate.
It’s a lot of extra, unnecessary work to do. Yes, there are some benefits to practicing problem-solving, but eventually, these will be far outweighed by the exhaustion of it.
4. You catastrophize.
When something small or medium-ish goes wrong, anxious people often jump to thinking it’s going to be difficult to handle.
An antidote to this is to consciously think of three possible scenarios—the worst, best, and most realistic. For example, I rented a car recently and a piece of plastic that clipped under the bumper fell off. I have no idea how it happened. It clearly hadn’t been damaged as all the clips were intact, but it was missing from the car. I was insured for damage, and yet I still worried about what would happen when I returned the car.
Here’s the way I used the worst/best/realistic technique in this scenario. The worst-case scenario was that the rental car company would attempt to charge me an exorbitant amount and the insurance wouldn’t cover it (eg, they might charge me for the car being out of service for weeks while they waited on the non-essential piece of plastic). The best-The case scenario was they wouldn’t blame me for it and nothing would happen. The most realistic realistic The outcome seemed to be that they would hold me accountable for it, but that insurance would take care of it, and it wouldn’t be a big deal.
What happened? A combination of the best and most realistic scenarios. Initially, they said they would need to do a report, but then changed their mind and said not to worry about it.
5. You get intrusive thoughts when an ambiguous situation or problem can’t be handled straight away.
There are lots of scenarios in which we can’t resolve a worry straight away. You may have to wait days, weeks, or even months before finding out which of your worst/best/realistic predictions turns out to be correct. Anxious people often find it very hard to enjoy anything about life when they’re stuck in this limbo. They get intrusive thoughts about the problem they can’t resolve that pop up frequently and disrupt any sense of peace, well-being, or pleasure.
I wrote a whole post on how to manage this.
6. You personalize.
When we personalize a situation, it sends us down the rabbit hole of asking “why” questions. That type of rumination saps our confidence and energy. How other people behave is usually much more about them, their experiences, and their concerns and pressures than it is about us, the recipient.
7. Your sleep gets disrupted by worry.
Everything becomes harder to handle when we’re overtired. If your stress and anxiety disrupt your sleep, even simple tasks of daily living may start to feel overwhelming.
I recently wrote a post specifically on what to do when rumination or worry disrupts your sleep.
What Can You Do?
Here are some options:
- Create a habit of practicing mindfulness during at least some of your downtime. Link mindfulness with specific behaviors, like whenever you’re in a pool.
- Use the “worst/best/most realistic” technique I mentioned under point #4. I give more examples of how to use this technique in The Anxiety Toolkit.
- Self-compassion. This is more than just learning to talk to yourself kindly.
- Ask yourself, “How much of my life do I want this to take up?” Sometimes I say to myself, “This matters to me, but other things also matter to me.”
- Diffusion techniques. For example, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy includes a technique in which you repeat a trigger word like “stupid” for a few minutes until the word becomes merely a sound and loses some of its meaning and intense grip on you. You would pick a word that’s related to your specific anxiety and feels very emotionally charged. Other examples might be “trapped,” “threatened,” or whatever is most intense in the scenario you’re in.
Experiment with the ideas mentioned to see what works for you.