Have you ever wrapped up a vacation by losing sleep over the work ahead of you? You might have set aside your cares for a few days, but now your mind is spinning with anxiety about your bulging email inbox, an aggravating situation with a co-worker, or an important presentation.
Some of our best vacation moments are when we’re living in the now. Our anxiety, on the other hand, is nearly always set in the future—can we handle what’s next?
There is a good kind of anxiety that excites and prepares us for something meaningful and challenging. If this is what you feel at the end of vacation, you might feel nervous, but you’re ready to stretch your capacity and tackle what’s ahead.
Then there is the unpleasant anxiety that can twist our stomach in knots, leaving us fearful about the future. It is that kind of anxiety that keeps us awake at night, and that most of us want to learn how to manage.
The first step is usually to take some deep breaths, which helps the body to relax. Then, we can ask ourselves if the anxiety is rooted in a serious problem that really does require a shift in direction, or if it is something we might be able to manage on our own. Maybe I’m always anxious about work because it isn’t a good situation for me. Or maybe I’m not prepared for that presentation, and I need to own up to that fact and reschedule it. Or maybe some really difficult things are going on in my life, and I need to recognize my limits, and reach out for help.
If, on the other hand, the anxiety does feel manageable, it can help to learn its roots. Does the anxiety stem from a fear of failure? A wish to be liked? Or a sense that you are not good enough? If we can learn about our anxiety, we may be able to honor the discomfort while still moving forward.
And this is the critical step: If you can, move forward. Staying neutral, or complacent, can reinforce the anxiety. Staying still, we amplify the risk in our minds, and minimize our own capacity to be resourceful. Taking action teaches us that our anxious thoughts are impermanent, and we are capable of moving past them.