[post status: a little rough, but there’s something useful buried in here!]
Here’s some advice you might hear if you’re dealing with anxiety:
“It doesn’t matter WHY you’re struggling, accept the feelings and focus instead on the present”
Sounds great. But, then, so does this: “we should confront and heal our past traumas so they stop bothering us in the present”!
And these good-sounding bits of advice seem to be contradictory..!
How are we supposed to know WHEN to confront past traumas, and when to let go and focus on the present?
(And I bet you’ve come across loads more of these seemingly-contradictory pairs of advice.)
Here’s an answer I often return to:
It Depends On Context
Obviously, this is cheating. Everything depends on context.
But the confusion – over which advice to listen to – melts away if you split mental health recovery into two phases: coping in the moment and long-term healing.
These phases are the context in which these pieces of advice make sense.
And what is good advice for one phase is terrible advice for another.
Let’s see how this resolves my earlier apparent contradiction:
When you’re in the depths of anxious struggle, the question “WHY” can be really, really unhelpful.
It took me years to realise that my response to anxiety was to search for reasons for it, and that my brain was happily obliging by finding a thousand things I could worry about.
Neil’s brain: “Hey, happy to help. Is it nuclear war? Or fear of getting sick? Or of being fired? Or worrying that everyone secretly hates you? Or…”
You get the idea. My brain just produced whole LISTS of things to worry about, which wasn’t helpful when I was already feeling anxious.
The phase of coping-in-the-moment was exactly the wrong time to be delving around in my past for the roots of anxiety. It turned out that in THAT phase, I was much better off accepting the negative feelings for what they were and finding ways to cope with them in the present.
But afterwards, when I’m feeling stronger, it’s really useful to delve around for the roots of anxiety. In that phase, I can figure out what patterns, habits or past experiences were creating the anxious feelings in the first place. And, ideally, I can use that phase to do some long-term work on preventing the anxiety from returning.
Perhaps this distinction between coping-in-the-moment and long-term-healing will help you to decide what advice is useful for you right now:
If you’re in an extra-difficult period, then consider (temporarily) pausing the long-term healing work. Usually that kind of thing only brings up more problems which are best faced from a position of strength.
But if you’re NOT currently in a difficult period, then perhaps it’s the right time to do some long-term healing work, to hopefully stop the difficult periods from arising again in the first place.
Just remember: what’s good advice for one phase may well be terrible advice for the other.
It doesn’t make either idea bad advice. Just not the right advice for right now.
No advice was harmed during the production of this post.
Don’t forget to watch the custard-based TED talk, if you haven’t already! (And if you have, why not tell your friends about it?!)
Or check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores anxiety and happiness through embarrassing real-life stories, fantasy fiction, thought-provoking discussion and terribly-drawn doodles.
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Read the whole series on Anxiety here.