Tonight I’m thinking of the phrase, “Please respond without delay”, which is often plastered across the front page of junk mail. In fact, you know it’s junk mail when it says, “please respond without delay” because advertisers who send out junk mail want you to act before you think. Rarely does it pay off in your favor to respond without delay, without pausing, without thinking before acting, and they know it. Thus, they tell you to “please respond without delay”.
Things are no different when it comes to responding to anxiety. When we feel anxious about something and respond to the anxiety immediately, we usually end up temporarily decreasing the anxiety, but reinforcing it in the long run. Think about any time you’ve ever thought to yourself when away from home, “Did I turn off the stove/lights/iron?” or “Did I lock the door?” or “Did I shut that window since it now looks like rain?” The first impulse may be to respond without delay: rush home to check or call to have a neighbor or family member check. Checking serves the purpose of temporarily decreasing the anxiety. But the next time that thought pops into mind and the anxiety rises, a little voice says, “You can’t handle this anxiety. You better go check.” It becomes a cycle of obsessive thoughts, anxious feelings, and compulsive behaviors.
In order to break that cycle, we have to respond with delay. We can honor the anxiety by taking note of it. And then we can choose to do nothing. Maybe not forever, but maybe we choose to do nothing for five minutes and simply take note of where our anxiety goes. If, in five minutes, we’re still anxious, we can choose to do nothing for another five minutes OR we can choose to respond. But, in choosing to delay our response for even a few minutes, we’re teaching ourselves that 1) anxiety is just a feeling; 2) we have the capacity to endure difficult feelings; and 3) nothing bad happens when we delay our response. (Now, I’m sure there are some anxious readers of mine out there who are saying, “Yes, but the one time I don’t check the front door will be the one time someone breaks in and steals everything.” To you…and I am one of you…I say, “Try it and see what happens.”)
I’ve been thinking about this idea today because I’m reading a book called “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis” by Lauren F. Winner. In it, Ms. Winner writes about losing her faith for a while. During that time, she sinks back into her history of obsessions and compulsions until she’s an anxious wreck. Then, during the season of Lent, when individuals often choose to sacrifice something they hold dear, Ms. Winner decides to give up anxiety. Yes, that’s right. She gives up anxiety for Lent after a friend reminds her that she can choose to sit with her anxiety for a few minutes at a time, ever increasing that time, until the anxiety goes away.
It’s such a simple concept: simply sit still, be still, be. And it was exactly what I needed to read today when my inner critic was telling me how much fatter I am now than I used to be (despite my rational self saying, “But the scale hasn’t budged”). As that thought sank in, my anxiety rose, and I had a strong urge to type the phrase, “safe, herbal fat loss” into a search engine. I was so close to doing that before Ms. Winner’s words rang in my ear: “Be still.” I took a deep breath and opened this blog instead. In the ten minutes it took to type this post, my anxiety has gone from a 10 to a 3. Not bad.
So, this week, as you feel anxieties and worries arising, please respond with delay. It really helps.
Peace, joy, and health,