So a bunch of people in my life have been telling me how frightened they are by the financial situation in the world today, and how they’re concerned that their jobs or businesses won’t survive. Interestingly enough, I predicted in advance who most of these people would be.
How did I do this? The answer is simple—I know these people well enough to understand that, no matter what’s going on in their lives and the world, they’ll always manage to be frightened about something. Maybe they’ll be worried about losing their jobs, getting sick, having problems in their relationships, or something else. But one thing is certain—they’ll always be worried.
When these worry-prone people explain why they’re anxious, they sound perfectly knowledgeable and rational. Nothing seems strange or hysterical about them when they describe their worries—and in fact, if you aren’t careful, they may convince you to start worrying too. It’s only if you watch them over a period of time that you start seeing a pattern. In their worlds, some catastrophe always seems to be looming, and so they’re constantly in “crisis mode”—they’re always fretting and preparing for the worst.
At first glance, it may seem like there’s nothing wrong with keeping yourself alert and ready for possible problems. Unfortunately, however, another consistent theme I notice in my worry-prone friends’ lives is suffering. For instance, one thing these friends regularly tell me is that they aren’t satisfied with their jobs—they know they could be giving more of their gifts to the world. But they’re scared that, if they make a transition, they won’t succeed at what they do, and they or their loved ones will starve. And not surprisingly, they can give me a long list of compelling arguments for why this is likely.
One of the reasons people who are perpetually in “crisis mode” suffer is that they’re so focused on surviving and preparing for the worst that they limit themselves by avoiding risks. Perhaps they stay in careers that aren’t working for them; maybe they feel too anxious to introduce themselves to people they’re attracted to; or maybe they stay cooped up indoors most of the time due to fear of the unknown. They emphasize surviving, in other words, at the expense of thriving.
I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t prepare or take precautions in life. But we can seriously limit our fulfillment if our attention is always on preparing for the worst rather than creating the life we want and enjoying the journey. One of the keys to freeing ourselves from permanent crisis mode is to pay close attention to our patterns of thinking and behavior, and notice the ways we’re constantly bracing ourselves for catastrophe in the way we live. Here are three recommendations for developing this kind of awareness:
1. Notice where you take pride in being afraid. Although the conventional wisdom in our culture is that fear is an obstacle to be overcome, many of us have areas of our lives where we get a subtle feeling of safety or ego gratification from worrying. I saw one clear example of this recently in a conversation with a friend. He told me that he was pretty sure he was going to lose his job. I asked him why he thought that would happen, and he angrily responded “haven’t you been reading the news? Don’t you know what’s going on? It’s pretty obvious.”
My friend later acknowledged that, because of how nervous he felt, he’d overreacted a bit to my question. But I got the sense that fear wasn’t the only thing motivating his response—I also detected, in the attacking way he reacted, a desire to make himself feel more knowledgeable and responsible than me. You’ve probably had a similar conversation with someone where they’ve insisted they had good reasons to be worried, and suggested you were ignorant or irresponsible for not knowing why.
Whenever you find yourself angrily insisting you have “every right” to be scared, consider the possibility that you’re identifying with, and getting a sense of superiority out of, your fear. And because worrying has you feel good about yourself, you’ll always find some reason to be afraid. If this feels true for you, just developing more awareness around this habit will likely give you a sense of freedom to let go of it.
2. Focus on the anxiety, not the reasons for it. When we find ourselves fearing the worst much of the time, we normally assume the circumstances of our lives are responsible—in other words, that we just live in a frightening world. Maybe our bosses are too demanding, our partners are hard to please, our kids are always getting into trouble, or something else. What we don’t usually focus on is the fact that, ultimately, our bodies—not the outside world—create the sensations we call fear.
If you’ve been in perpetual “crisis mode” for a long time, you’ve probably become very good at creating convincing reasons why you should worry. What’s more, even if you run out of reasons to feel afraid at any moment, other people, television, newspapers, and so on are always ready to give you more. Thus, trying to logically convince yourself not to be afraid, and to be relaxed and composed, may not work so well.
Instead, see if you can take your attention off all the reasons why you should supposedly be worrying, and focus on the feeling of worry itself. Notice how your body feels when anxiety arises. For example, do your shoulders tighten up? Does your breathing get shallow? Do you feel a heat in your face?
And if you pay very close attention to this feeling, you may start noticing something else: that, at least sometimes, you experience the feeling before you’re aware of any reasons to be anxious. In other words, first the feeling arises, and then your mind starts searching for problems in your life and the world to explain why it’s there. I called this process “rummaging” in an earlier article—in these moments, it’s like you’re rummaging through the attic of your memories, trying to dig up a reason to suffer.
When you start catching your mind in the act of rummaging for reasons to feel afraid, suddenly all the compelling explanations you used to come up with for why you ought to be worried no longer seem so convincing.
3. Keep breathing. One thing we commonly do when we start to feel anxious is to hold our breath, or restrict our breathing. Because our minds, as I said earlier, are usually occupied with all the problems that supposedly plague us out in the world, we aren’t typically conscious of our breathing in worried moments. But if we have the presence of mind, in those moments, to turn our attention back to our breath, we often experience some of that tension relaxing.
And as we feel more “room to breathe” and take in more nourishing oxygen, our view of the world begins to soften as well—suddenly, all the catastrophes we thought were looming on the horizon begin to seem more manageable and less threatening. Becoming aware of, and taking responsibility for, our breathing not only improves our health—it can give us the peace and focus we need to constructively handle the problems we face, instead of worrying about them.