Anxiety: It’s Not What You Have, It’s What You Do

“If we don’t recognize what is going on in our heads we find it easy to assume that somehow our anxieties come to us ready made from the outside.  It can feel as though they are happening to us and that they are caused by something outside of us.”

Who wants to live forever? by AndWhyNot

According to Charles Merrett, clinical psychology as a treatment for anxiety doesn’t really work the way we’d like it to.  And he should know . . . he’s been a clinical psychologist for more than 35 years.  His recent book, “The Origin of Anxieties” is a culmination of what he’s learned about stress over the years and why the way most of us think about it is dead wrong.

The way people think and speak about anxiety (“EverydaySpeak” as Merrett calls it) is as if it is a condition, or something that has “happened” to you.  The problem with this perspective is it relinquishes all control over the situation and makes people victims of their anxieties.

Merrett uses the example of “The Speeding Car” to illustrate his point.  If you were standing in the middle of the road as a speeding car came headed straight towards you, you would be experiencing a great deal of anxiety.  But if you were wearing your iPod headphones and had your back turned as the car bore down on you, you wouldn’t experience any anxiety at all.  In other words, the anxiety is not in the car or in the situation, it is in you.

It is only when you become aware of the car and begin to attach significant meaning to the situation that the anxiety comes into play.  Anxiety is not what we have it’s what we do.  In some situations, “doing” anxiety can be helpful.  (Preparing your body to leap out of the way of an oncoming car would be one good example.)

But attaching meaning to something has another effect also.  Once we attach meaning to something we begin to notice it more.  If we interpret something as stressful, not only do we “do anxiety” in response, but we also begin to pay more attention to it, leading to even more anxiety.

Merrett also explains how our brains have evolved to explore possibilities or to imagine things that aren’t true.  This ability allows us to hope and plan for the future, to be creative and to innovate, and to test ideas in our minds before applying them in the real world.  But it also allows us to worry, as we imagine potentially negative “what if” scenarios in our future.

i was always so certain of what i'd do by Meredith_Farmer

“Our minds are rarely idle.  If we are not engaged in some immediate task we spend much of our time going over the past or trying to imagine some aspect of the future.”

If we don’t understand how anxiety works, we are likely to be confused as to why we are feeling the way we are feeling: “Why do I feel this way?”  “Why is this happening to me?”  But if we understand this is something our minds are doing to test possibilities, then we can consider other possibilities.  We can choose to focus our minds on different things.  Anxiety is not what we have it’s what we do.

Merrett’s book serves a troubleshooting manual for the mind.  If you know that anxiety is not what you have, but what you do, you can choose when and how much you will do it.  I’m not an advocate of eliminating anxiety entirely (see my article on “the pain.”)  For me, it’s more about developing your psychological flexibility and your ability to be master of your own mind, rather than a slave to it.

Have you been doing anxiety lately?  Maybe it’s time to take back control of your mind.

References and recommended reading:

Merrett, C. (2011).  The Origin of Anxieties.  Minds Eye Books.


by Jeremy McCarthy

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12 Responses to Anxiety: It’s Not What You Have, It’s What You Do

  1. Lisa Sansom March 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

    Timely! did you see this? “anxiety = uncertainty x powerlessness”

  2. Lisa Sansom March 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    Oh – and this one just came through my inbox too:

  3. Mary Jane March 29, 2012 at 5:16 am #

    Hi Jeremy,
    Another great post.
    I think remembering that we have a choice in our reactions is key and deciding to choose the most helpful, empowering or encouraging thought, belief or action really helps us to take control, or at least appear to!
    Take care,
    Mary Jane

  4. Eric Stephenson March 29, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    Great topic Jeremy and one close to my heart. Two years ago, (ironically while on a week-long silent retreat) I experienced a major anxiety attack at the end of an hour long meditation. The attack was so severe I had to excuse myself from the event. What transpired in the ensuing days and weeks was most humbling and gave me insight into the real causes of my acute attack as well as my life-long pattern of anxious tendencies.

    My body experienced uncontrollable convulsions and OCD events. After going the allopathic route via my doctor, I began an anti-depressant immediately. Wanting to understand the causes, I turned to a Traditional Chinese Medicine Acupuncturist (whom I trust with my life) to get to the bottom of it. What I learned has changed my life.

    He was able to decipher from my blood tests something that my doctor had overlooked, or probably closer to the truth, never been trained to detect. While the individual numbers in my thyroid counts looked normal to my doctor, the TCM lens looks at relationships between the numbers and quickly identified me as having a condition called Hashimotos Thyroiditis. When he called me he said: “Are you sitting down? You my friend can never, ever, EVER, eat gluten again!” Hashimotos and gluten sensitivity are intimately linked.

    Excuse me? I am a boy from NY that grew up with two food groups: Pizza and Beer. The news was devastating and also liberating. It has been almost two years since I have gone gluten-free and my life-long pattern of anxiety has decreased by 80%. While this condition is increasingly being diagnosed, I offer it to your readers as an option to explore for the cause of anxiety. The research is showing anxiety, irritability, panic attacks and overall stress levels are directly tied into what we eat. We are, in my own opinion, at the beginning of an epidemic of tying what we put into our mouths with our mental health. I have read estimates that as much as 30% of Americans may be allergic to wheat, dairy or nuts and not even know it.

    I agree with Mr. Merrett that anxiety is an inside job, but it’s origins go far beyond the mind and nervous system.

    I would love to see more writings/discussions about this topic.

  5. Charlie Wills March 29, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Why are most all of us so Far Beind the 8 Ball on these typs of Issues?

    AMYGDALA any one??????

    That is where the anxiety comes from associated with the Fight and Flight side of the Nervous System….again why ae we looking for something that is already clearly Obvious????

    Your Mind is the old fashion coffee maker and the mind is that little glass bubble on top we see the coffe in once it starts perculating to the top,,,its the FINAL destination flks ,,not the First…

    97% of Shrinks are doing just that,,, shrinkig people minds with Drugs,,,BOOOOOO!!!!! on them….

    Learn to control your Nervous system ad how to bathe your amygdala with endorphins and the anxiety is gone!!
    One of the reasons we won those Tripadisor Awards,,,
    It’s Simpe folks,, you just ned the right TOOLS for the Job…and a Shrink is not one of them!!!!

  6. Jeremy McCarthy March 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Thanks Lisa, I’ve just finished reading Chip Conley’s book and already planning a future article on his equations. That equation ties into Csikszentmihalyi’s views on Flow. Having stress or challenge is not necessarily bad, as long as we have the skills to rise to the challenge (here’s an article I wrote before on “The Good Side of Stress” It’s only when we feel we can’t control the situation (“powerlessness” in Conley’s equation) that the anxiety begins to become unmanageable.

  7. Jeremy McCarthy March 29, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    HI Eric, Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. I have heard a lot of people share similar stories about how their life was transformed after removing gluten. I have not done that myself but I agree we are still very primitive in our understanding of how the things we put into our body affect our chemistry in many ways.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy March 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Charlie is right about the amygdala. It’s the first stop on the train so every thing we perceive goes through there first. This is where Kahneman’s “system 1” can quickly overrride “system 2” and logic and reason go out the window. Developing self-awareness to know when you are slipping down this path is key. Another aspect that I think is very relevant for the spa world I work in is that a rested, happy mind is better able to engage system 2. A tired mind is more likely to take the easy route and react with system 1. I think we will continue to see a greater awareness of the importance of rest and recovery for health and wellbeing in the years to come.

  9. Charles Merrett April 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    An interesting mix of comments. I guess the purpose of my book The origin of Anxieties is to wave a flag for the mind and what it does. My impression is that we live in a materialistic culture that tends to emphasise the power of physical processes over the more subtle activities of the mind. Both are no doubt important but I believe the mind is far more subtle and beautiful than our everyday ways of thinking about it allow.

    Lisa, I saw the article on Big Think and thought you might be interested in the following extract from page 17 my book;

    The more likely we think an outcome is and the more we don’t want it, the more anxious we are going to feel.

    For anyone who likes a little maths with their reading we can put this into a formula.

    Intensity of anxiety (A) = probability (P) of the outcome we predict x
    intensity (I) with which we don’t want that outcome. So A=PI

    It also follows that: Anxiety = 0

    When: P = 0 (That is, when we believe the outcome isn’t going to happen after all.)

    Or: I = 0 (That is, when we don’t mind if the outcome does happen.)

    We won’t be anxious at all whenever we say that something we had been anxious about isn’t going to happen; or whenever we decide we don’t mind if it does.

  10. Jeremy McCarthy April 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    Thanks Charles, both for your book and for checking in with a comment for the readers of TPOW who I know will enjoy your perspective. It is amazing how a subtle change in thinking can make a big difference in outcomes . . . that is the beauty of your work on this. From my own personal experience, I have gone through some bad experiences that once I accepted the fact that I was going to have to leave a situation, it immediately put me back in control and from there I could calmly move forward and turn the situation around (as opposed to being a victim of it.) I find lots of wisdom in your approach.

  11. David @ Social Expression April 9, 2012 at 12:21 am #

    Fantastic article, found you through your Huffington Post article on psychological flexibility and mindfulness. As a coach for people with social anxiety, I’ve found the mindfulness approach to be much more powerful that traditional CBT, trying to change thoughts, which can work, but often can create more anxiety, by pushing directly against it. Like you said, we do anxiety, rather than have it…and when we fight against it that’s just more doing, too.

    I’ve found the approach through acceptance & commitment therapy and mindfulness cognitive therapy to be really powerful.

  12. Jeremy McCarthy April 9, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    Thanks David, I’m glad you found me. I’ve been learning about ACT also and agree, I think it’s the wave of the future. I’ve been telling folks in the wellness community that mindfulness will be the next big trend (in no small part due to science and therapeutic work being done in the ACT realm.)

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