April 30, 2024

Why Am I So Anxious? Living in Survival Mode when it’s Time to Thrive.


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“Why am I still so anxious?”

This was my friend’s question after recounting a laundry list of trials she’d recently overcome—divorce, career changes, even a cross-country move.

Now comfortably settled into her life, having done the hard work of healing and achieving financial stability, she couldn’t shake the persistent feeling of anxiety.

Despite her logical mind telling her she’s out of the woods, her overactive brain seems to be on a relentless quest for worry, diving headfirst into rabbit holes of “what ifs.” These thoughts hijack her day. Then she scolds herself for being such a drama queen and making big things from nothing.

It’s like she’s caught in a do-loop, her brain stuck running an internal survival program that served her well during times of upheaval. But now, it’s like her brain is addicted to stress, creating dramas where there are none.

Our brains are wired to keep us motivated and safe. Back in the day, it helped us dodge lions and tigers. But in our relatively safer modern world, it’s the part that is constantly on the lookout for potential risks. So, when there aren’t any immediate threats, it manufactures them to fill in the time.

Surviving is practically our species’ middle name, after all. We’ve had millennia of practice. But thriving? Well, that’s a whole different ball game. Thriving takes conscious, mindful action—redirecting our thoughts, regulating our emotions, and resisting the urge to let every little inconvenience derail us.

Surviving is an animal default. It’s why we humans are so good at it. We have a lot of practice.

Thriving is a state of mind…which is why thriving is so hard.

Anyway, back to my friend. She wanted advice, so this is what I shared with her.

See a doc you trust. First off, see a medical professional. I’m no doctor, and sometimes there’s more going on under the hood than we realize.

Bring your brain to the present. When your brain’s in anxiety mode, it’s off in la-la land—either fretting about the future or rehashing the past. Drag it back to the present by tuning into your senses. Smell something nice, pet something soft, or belt out your favorite tune. It’s hard for your brain to go full panic mode when it’s jamming out to your favorite song.

Give your brain a job worthy of your time and energy. Our brains wander when they’re bored. So, give yours something better to do than conjure up worst-case scenarios. Get clear on your goals and intentions for your life and focus your energy on them.

Get comfortable with uncomfortable feelings. Thriving isn’t about an easy life. It’s about conquering the human-bits we see as enemies. I had seen this particular friend many times start feeling the feelings and then suddenly tell me why she should be grateful and positive. That’s not managing the feelings. That’s an effort to bypass them…and friend, that never works. They are still there. They still need attention. Feelings want to be felt and then heard. They don’t have to direct our actions, but they might have information that could be helpful for you to know yourself better.

Be gentle with your humanness. Compassion and curiosity are tools we don’t employ enough with ourselves. We forget we aren’t robots. We can’t be programmed and just carry out the motions. We make mistakes—even after we know better. We need breaks. Our bodies need maintenance. We can make bad decisions. When we start shaming or judging ourselves, we only tear down our own confidence to do better. Lead with compassion and curiosity.

Adapt chaos over control. Face it: life is unpredictable. No matter how much you plan and prep, something unexpected is bound to happen. But guess what? You’ve survived every curveball life’s thrown at you so far. That’s pretty darn impressive. Not only can you survive those things, you can thrive through them if the expectation is that the unexpected is normal and not necessarily controllable.

Surviving is about focusing on immediate danger and overcoming it. But once that’s done, it’s time to shift gears into thriving mode. It’s about focusing on what you want and putting your energy into that. Sure, it’s not our natural state, but with practice, we can train our brains to thrive.

So, where are you putting your mental focus these days?


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