The imagination is powerful and often undisciplined. Our minds fill in empty space with images and stories of what might be, and our bodies react as though those things are truly happening. What we imagine says so much about our personalities, our histories, and our relationships. What we imagine says so much about our mood and state of being at any moment.
If I’m busy and do not hear back from someone, I might forget about the message or focus on other things. If I’m feeling good and confident, I might assume they’re busy or working on it. If too much time passes and I feel insecure or tired, my imagination starts spinning different stories. Feelings of persecution may set in. I might imagine arguments between myself and the absent person, or imagine that I’m being ignored because I am worthless, or marginalized with deliberate intent to harm. I might imagine something bad happening to myself or the other person.
This is a common feature of people with anxiety, and most of us have some level of anxiety at some point or another. For people with high levels of anxiety, these imaginations can become so intense and frightening that they inhibit us from doing what we need to do. We might have piles of mail, dozens of unread emails, a voicemail box that is chock-full of unheard messages. We might have bills in collections and debt spiraling out of control, all because the idea of facing and dealing with it is terrifying and we have already admitted defeat. Or we’ve convinced ourselves that by ignoring a thing we are able to postpone defeat.
That’s not the case with everyone. I’ve learned that some folks might be active in managing these issues, calling the utilities and credit companies to attempt to negotiate for better payment schedules and adjust financial burdens. That conversation we’ve been dreading might be one that the other person wants to have. Help might be available if we can tolerate the anxiety and face the thing we’ve been avoiding. When we find ourselves worrying about what might be wrong or imagining things for which we have no evidence, can we stop, take a breath, and try to imagine something different? The goal is not to argue with anxiety, because to argue is to have already lost. We can stop letting worry set the terms of how we think. We can focus on what is working in life, times when we reached out and found help, or our own capacity to resolve the issue.
To discuss anxiety in this way is not to say that our minds are always wrong. Some of us may find that we have accurate intuitions into what is happening, particularly with unspoken communications that we recognize are out of the norm. If you are prone to anxious ruminations, however, it may become difficult to parse out what is useful from what comes from your typical hopes or fears. We might take our cue from cognitive-behavioral therapy and ask ourselves, “What evidence do I have that this idea is true (or false)? What would it mean for me if this was true (or false)? If this is true (or false), what could I do with this information?” It might be time to take action, or to wait and gather more information. Sometimes we can spare ourselves hours of agony just by calling someone up and checking out our inner story with their thoughts or feelings.
This comes back around to the major point: while choosing to wait is an active response to a problem, avoiding the problem or anything that reminds us of it is not. By avoiding, we shut out information that could confirm or disprove beliefs, and wall ourselves up into a self-perpetuating loop of anxiety. I believe that people with anxiety are capable of courageously confronting their lives. Perhaps they need more courage than most to do what may look from the outside like simple tasks. We may find, with time, that confronting these anxiety-producing situations fills us with energy and drive.