A major part of managing anxiety is realizing that except in rare cases the life circumstances that have cued off that anxiety don’t represent an immediate threat to our survival. The evolutionary purpose of anxiety is exactly to make us uncomfortably aware of some threat to our survival so that we feel compelled to take the appropriate action to protect ourselves from that threat.
But in the modern human world existential anxiety isn’t just cued off by concrete threats to our physical survival, it’s also cued off by myriad ephemeral threats to our emotional and psychological survival. Any time we face that threat of nothingness, whether real or symbolic, the same physiological process is set into motion and in that state of anxiety we can’t help but feel compelled to do something right now to rectify the situation.
And the problem is that in many cases we want so badly to diminish the painful anxiety cued off by the perceived unfavorable environmental conditions that we act in ways detrimental to us and the world, detrimental to our mental health and the health of our relationships, because we’re not thinking clearly about the big picture we’re only thinking in terms of reducing our anxiety. Of course we tell ourselves we’re primarily concerned with the set of unfavorable variables out there in the world but what we’re really primarily concerned with is the anxiety coursing through our bodies and coloring our perception of the world.
The antidote is raising conscious awareness in order to recognize life circumstances that are discomfiting but aren’t an immediate threat to our physical survival and to sit with our unpleasant feelings of anxiety during these moments instead of blindly giving in to the compulsion to do something right away. Usually with a little perspective and objectivity we find that we don’t need to do much at all except tolerate our anxiety a little better while things sort themselves out, or that what we do need to do is much different from what we would have done under anxiety’s sway. Impulsive behavior of all kinds can often be chalked up to the mechanical response to felt existential anxiety, and this behavior is rarely in our best interests. It behooves us to learn to slow down and take some time to just sit with our anxiety rather than acting on it, assuming our physical safety is not at risk.