Anxiety Can Be Paralyzing

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“Concern should drive us into action, not into a depression.”
-Karen Horney

When we think of anxiety from a physiological standpoint we think of the fight or flight response, where our bodies activate to either run away from a threat or face it to try to overcome it. But when we broaden our definition of anxiety to include the existential a third option rears its ugly head, which is inaction. For human beings, anxiety can be paralyzing.

One of the reasons why existential anxiety causes us to do nothing when it would be in our best interest to do something is that action means coming up with a plan, and coming up with a plan means making one choice amongst many choices. The very process is itself anxiety inducing, because the threat of nothingness hangs over it, multiplied by however many choices we believe we have. The moment we take one path, all of the other paths become unwalkable, which means that they symbolically die.

Paralysis starts to make sense when we realize that the original concern plus uncertainty about the best way to go about addressing this concern means that existential anxiety doubles just by thinking about the problem. This helps explain the inertia that grips many who know very well that they need to change some aspect of their life but do nothing.

The best thing you can do when this happens to you is to create a specific action plan. First sort through the various options you think are available to you and write these options down, as well as the steps that will be necessary to have success in each case. Write down your own positive traits and unique abilities that you will use. It’s always good to get opinions from people you trust during this process.

If all of the ideas appear to give you around the same chance of success, you’ve got to just choose one and go for it. Once you have made your decision a cognitive bias common to most everyone will probably kick in, where for the sake of consistency you will end up believing you made the right decision regardless of which one you chose or how it pans out, so just choose one and put it into action.

If you do this a lot of your anxiety is going to dissipate. For one thing, the existential anxiety stemming from choices will no longer be a problem since you have made one. And for another, having a plan to overcome your concern will make you feel better about that concern, even if nothing has changed yet.

Lots of people think the ‘wait and see’ attitude is the most prudent course of action, and sometimes it is, but often it’s just a rationalization to avoid the anxiety caused by being forced to make an irrevocable choice. But in an existential sense doing nothing is making a choice too, so you really can’t escape responsibility as a sentient organism capable of conceptualizing possibilities. You give yourself the best chance to overcome your problems and the anxiety surrounding them by activating and using your best qualities, not by freezing up and hoping for the best.