The One Question We Need to Ask Ourselves When We Feel Anxious – Free Ebook

One of the most difficult features of anxiety
is that it tends to be all-consuming. It squats

in the middle of our minds and refuses to
let anything else in or through. Though the

anxiety causes us great pain, it denies any
attempts to be questioned, analysed, probed

or reconfigured. We are both terrified and
unable to think beyond our terror. Our thoughts

become low, relentless, repetitive, stymied
things: returning again and again to the issue

of whether the door is locked, the accounts
were signed off or the social media account

is not under attack. Anxiety dominates over
and excludes any other form of mental activity;

all that will be in our minds is terror. Impregnable
and bullying, anxiety in effect shuts down

our central faculties. But there is one nimble
way to try to outwit anxiety – and that

is with a question that recognises a fundamental
feature of anxiety: that it is frequently

a smokescreen for something else, something
beyond what we consciously think is worrying

us, that we’re in fact concerned with or
sad about. One of the peculiar facets of our

minds is that we may choose to feel anxious
rather than to confront things that may be

yet more painful or emotionally awkward in
our lives. It can be easier to fret than to

know ourselves properly. We might feel anxious
about whether we’re going to get to the

airport on time as an escape from the greater
challenge of wondering whether this holiday

is even worth it and whether our spouse still
loves us. Or we might get intensely anxious

about a financial issue in order to avoid
a yet trickier acknowledgement of our confusion

at the course of our emotional lives. Or we
may develop a sexual anxiety as an alternative

to thinking about our sense of self-worth
and the childhood that destroyed it. Panic

may be invited to shield us from more profound
sources of self-aware agony. And yet, of course,

we are always better off getting to the root
cause of our troubles, rather than filling

our minds with diversionary panic – and
in order to do so, we would be wise at points

to ask ourselves a simple but possibly highly
revealing question: ‘If your mind wasn’t

currently filled with these particular anxious
thoughts, what might you have to think about

right now?’ The question, as simple in structure
as it is acute in design, is liable to unlock

a moment of original insight. The answer might
go like this: – I might realise how sad

and lonely I am… – I might realise how
angry I feel towards my partner… – I might

realise how abandoned I feel… And that,
of course, is precisely what we should be

doing now. Filling our minds with, and processing,
all the stuff that our anxiety was trying

to keep at bay. Certain anxieties can be taken
at face value, for they do clearly relate

to worrying things in the world. But there
is another class of them, and a rather large

one at that, that is there for no better purpose
than to distract us from understanding important

parts of ourselves. If we need to suffer,
and often we will, the least we can do is

to ensure that we are suffering for the right
reasons. At points, we should trade our anxiety

in for something far more important: a confrontation
with the real ambivalence and complexity of

our lives – and we should do so thanks to
a naively simple question: ‘If your mind

wasn’t currently filled with these particular
anxious thoughts, what might you have to think

about right now?’

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