Doing Nothing To Combat Anxiety

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When faced with a threat to our well-being or the well-being of the people we care about we all feel compelled to take action. Existential anxiety is the threat of nothingness. We inherently know the best way to alleviate that threat and the painful feelings cued off by it is by doing something, not by sitting there doing nothing as the world comes crashing down around us.

Yet often in our complicated modern world there’s little or nothing we can do to affect certain situations. The outcome remains up in the air and all we can do is wait. Rationally we know we might not have much say in the matter, like when a loved one is in the middle of an important surgery, but we’re not rational creatures we’re irrational creatures. Despite our inability to do anything to affect the outcome we’ll still make ourselves busy as a symbolic answer to the problem of that existential anxiety. Doing something, anything, is preferable to sitting there doing nothing. We might pace back and forth, we might eat and drink compulsively, we might check in over and over with friends and family members, we might pray even though we’re not particularly religious. We just don’t want to feel helpless in the face of a hostile world. Even though doing something and doing nothing would amount to the exact same thing we choose something without thinking twice.

This same psychological process goes on all day every day for most of us in less extreme form. The threatening activating events cuing off our existential anxiety might not be as visible, but this only means we’re not consciously aware of them. In a world where diverting attention is easy, where there’s always something to do, some website to go to, some app to download, some show to watch, some work to get done, some event to go to, we fill up our hours with as much something as possible and this is our unconscious temporary solution to the threat of nothingness. We end up running around like chickens with our heads cut off, spending our lives compulsively driven to do things that aren’t important to us while telling ourselves these things are important to us.

The rub is that doing something only covers up existential anxiety it doesn’t make it go away. Ironically, it’s purposefully doing nothing on a consistent basis, particularly when we feel compelled to do something, that combats existential anxiety. Of course it’s not just doing nothing, it’s doing nothing while inviting those threatening thoughts and feelings into conscious awareness rather than banishing them to the periphery that paves the way for freedom, freedom to do what we want with our time instead of what our anxiety wants us to do with our time.