“Why do I always feel anxious or depressed, instead of just calm or happy?”
Have you ever owned a dog?
It doesn’t matter if you haven’t, you probably know enough about dogs.
Imagine you have a dog.
Let's say you come home from work late one night, and you’re chilling on the sofa. You're watching How I Met Your Mother on Netflix, comfortably dozing off with your pup happily asleep next to you.
Suddenly... someone is trying to break in to your home. You can hear them at the door, trying to break open the lock.
If you're like many people, your first reaction is probably to freeze.
Your mind explodes with dozens of thoughts and emotions, all at once.
- Disbelief. Is that really a burglar?!
- Confusion. Should I call the police, or yell, or grab a weapon?
- Anger. How dare they?
- Fear. OMG should I hide somewhere?
Feeling intense pressure, you quickly consider your options, and their possible outcomes.
Your dog, meanwhile, has none of that.
He is instantly wide awake, snarling, barking, growling at the intruder. He went from zero to 100 in 3 seconds flat, and made it very clear that anyone opening that door is going to become his new favorite chew toy.
The intruder, unenthusiastic about that idea, runs off.
Yay. Crisis averted.
The cortisol spike washes away, and you breathe a sigh of relief.
But the experience doesn't end here. What happens next?
Your dog stops barking, sniffs the door and listens for a minute to make certain the threat is gone. Then he relaxes, hops back on the sofa, satisfied.
Most likely, pup is sound asleep again in 30 seconds flat.
Your reaction is likely a bit more complex.
You will probably lay awake for awhile, worrying...
“What if they come back?”
“What if I wasn’t here?”
“Am I safe?”
“What if I didn’t have a dog?”
With each of these possibilities comes waves of emotion as you imagine that situation. Your mind simulates each of these experiences in full detail, and your emotions react to those simulations as though they were real.
You'll lay awake for hours.
Worse, your mind will dwell on the simulations that create the most emotion. You'll dwell on them even more, wrapped up in what-if's.
Welcome to anxiety, a central part of the human experience.
We experience anxiety because our ability to predict, imagine, and simulate things that could happen gives us a survival edge.
It allows us to prepare for the worst, and maybe even to avoid it.
Anxiety is survival radar.
It helps us see risks before they arrive.
We experience fantasy for the same reason, because it directs us to the things that can benefit us- even before those things are available to pursue.
Why doesn't your dog experience this too?
No rational thoughts = no ability to simulate and predict things = no emotions reacting to those thoughts.
The problem of overthinking
Here's where we mess things up.
Our ability to simulate and predict the future is a superpower. But when we don't know how to use it, we allow this ability to grab all of our attention, wreak havoc on our emotions, and run our lives.
Anxiety and fantasy are powerful tools-
but a life defined by anxiety and fantasy is not a happy place to live. Nothing is real, and yet we feel intense emotional experiences all day long.
It's just exhausting.
Here are a few things to reflect on.
Fantasy and anxiety are related, because they involve the same relationship between our imagination and our emotions. If you struggle with anxiety or fantasy, you'll probably struggle with the other too.
Master one, and you'll be better at mastering both.
Anxiety and fantasy are both superpowers. They are why humans live in skyscrapers and monkeys live in trees.
Imagination matters- but it's important to recognize it as a tool. Like math, planning, and reflection, imagination is a rational capability that we should use when it's appropriate.
When we allow ourselves to dwell on those imaginings, we will always gravitate towards the ones that provoke our emotions the most... and we get anxiety and fantasy all day long.
That doesn't make those imaginings one bit more real.
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