Over the years, I have had many say to me ‘I can’t stop ruminating about my anxiety and the way I feel’. They desperately want to, but say that no matter how hard they try, the subject and how they feel dominates their day.
The only way to stop thinking about anxiety is to take a break from the subject, to no longer obsess about it, no longer try and solve it or build your day around it. To let the subject and all attempts to fix yourself go and get on with living your life. This starves it of focus and energy, and it dies its own death. This then allows new things to come in and so the subject no longer dominates your thoughts.
The irony is that the more you try to overcome anxiety, the more focus and attention you give it and so the brain begins to obsess about it, keeping you in a loop.
It’s great and vital to finally find information that builds up your understanding of anxiety and gives you the knowledge and tools to recover, but sometimes people can immerse themselves in the subject to the point they can think of nothing else.
They may spend hours trawling through books, on internet searches, on chat rooms or forums and visiting numerous different therapists as they compulsively look for a solution. They may also keep referring back to notes on their phone, pages in a book they have highlighted, or favourite bookmarks on their computer.
They may keep revisiting information that once brought some relief in an attempt to feel that way again, only to find it no longer works. When they no longer feel the same level of relief as they did the first time, they believe they have to learn more and study the subject harder, and so the search continues.
Some also keep searching because they genuinely feel there is some golden nugget of information out there that will take away their suffering instantly and that they just haven’t found it yet. They may keep changing counsellors or keep trying different programs, books or retreats, feeling that the last one may have missed something and the next one will be the answer to all of their problems.
None of these compulsions go anywhere to help solving the problem. The subject just ends up dominating all your thoughts, as your mind is constantly flooded with the subject. Thinking about it then becomes a habit, an automatic response, and when the subject comes back, you feel the need to obsess over it once again and go back into solving mode, creating a loop you struggle to escape from. So many get hooked this way.
This endless search usually occurs because people are desperate to find an instant relief from how they are feeling or they feel that if they stop looking for a solution, they will be like this forever. The compulsion to solve is the only chance they have to get better and the only hope they are hanging on to, not realising the endless search and obsessing is the cause of many of their problems and a big contributor towards how they feel.
This approach not only creates numerous other problems but it doesn’t work as you are not allowing yourself to feel how you do. You are constantly trying to manipulate your current state. Anxiety will ebb and flow, emotions and moods will ebb and flow, your mind will sometimes be noisy and at times it will be calm.
You have to learn to be the observer of this inner show and not attempt to be the controller. It is the attempt to control that causes so much extra suffering, as you constantly push against or attempt to suppress how you feel. It also keeps our mind constantly active and why we can start to feel tormented by it, like it is constantly restless and won’t shut up.
The compulsion to solve how we feel
I was also stuck in this endless loop, something I refer to as the ‘Solving compulsion’
I went through this compulsion because I genuinely believed that the only way out was to keep searching for answers and to go over and over all the information I had previously gathered. I believed that I had to mentally think my way out of how I felt and to constantly monitor how I was feeling and how I was progressing. I would only gather more self-help books and pore over more information in my search to get better.
My head was full of sayings, techniques and rituals that I had acquired over time – ones I now religiously carried around with me in an attempt to manage and manipulate how I felt. I was never present to life or others. All my concern and focus was directed to my inner state.
Eventually, I started to feel the weight of constantly searching, struggling, monitoring, re-reading and carrying all of this information around with me. Because of how dreadful I was feeling, I knew deep down that this was not the answer to my problems and that I was on the wrong track. In my book ‘At last a life’, I called this my ‘Anxiety Backpack’ because this summed it up perfectly.
The end of all my attempts to solve myself
I knew that I had come to an end with this search, that it had to end, as I could see what this was doing to me. Yet, part of me was fearful as I didn’t know what would happen if I finally let go and no longer tried to ‘figure it all out’ but I had to find out as this path was getting me nowhere.
After contemplating this new approach for a while, I finally realised that nothing I did, and no saying or technique that I attempted to implement, ever improved how I felt anyway. I now knew on a very deep level that I had no control at all over how I was feeling and that every attempt at control only made things worse, leading to me feeling emotionally and mentally exhausted.
This relentless solution seeking also took my focus away from life and put it on me. It fed the subject deeper into my subconscious mind to where I could think of nothing else. This constant self-obsessed focus and the ensuing battle with myself had also started to break me mentally. I could barely concentrate, no longer think straight or focus on anything outside of myself. It was now time to listen to my suffering, realise I was on the wrong path and change my approach.
I can’t tell you how much things changed for me when I let go of all these compulsions and no longer tried to solve myself. When I finally stopped trying to manipulate my inner state, gave up all the information gathering, let go of all my rituals, techniques, and sayings and no longer tried to think my way out of my condition.
Let go of the need to fix yourself
As I said before, there is nothing wrong with educating yourself on the subject. Without doing this, I would never have recovered. The problem occurs when you are obsessively looking for information to try and constantly manipulate and manage your inner state. When you become obsessed with finding a solution, thinking that the more information you gather, the better you will feel. It becomes a full-time job for many to try and fix themselves or find relief.
The final destination is to finally let go of all the ‘doing’ and to go back to living, not the other way around. I can look back now and clearly see it was the constant ‘doing’ in an attempt to escape how I was feeling that made me suffer in the way I did. Which only led to more searching and more doing and why nothing ever changed for me.
When obsessing about a solution seems the only option
I know it feels completely against all your intuition to stop trying to solve yourself and to end the search, but you only have to see what all this is doing to you, to realise this is not going to lead you to where you want to be. If you still feel you need to educate yourself further, read the information and then let it go, allowing all understanding to happen organically. Don’t feel the need to grab on tightly to it, write it all down and keep re-reading it for some sense of security, thinking that you will be lost without it.
Trust me you will be far better off without the need to carry anything around with you. It takes up a huge amount of mental energy to carry around all these numerous sayings or rituals that you keep having to reinforce and remember. It ends up becoming baggage, stops you from living in the present moment and has you feeling constantly distracted and exhausted.
Let go of the need to gather information
Also learn to cut right back on information gathering, thinking there is something you may have missed. Concentrate more on rejoining life as that is where real progress lies. Learn to finally accept how you feel and let go of the constant drive to solve yourself or find temporary relief, it becomes a never-ending search.
Most people can get a real sense of what I am saying here and deep down they know this is what they need to do. But for many it can feel scary to just let go and give up all control as they feel something terrible will happen. When in truth is you only regain control when you give all control up.
When I gave up all attempts to feel better and just gave in to how I felt, the whole desire to fix myself and find a solution started to leave me. I found I no longer wanted to read about the subject, as there no longer seemed any point. If I did read, it was to genuinely understand something a little deeper but eventually, that drive left me too, I knew it was time to finally leave the subject behind me and go back to living my life.
This drive to solve myself went away when it finally clicked that there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about the way I was feeling. It would be like trying to control my heartbeat or my breathing 24 hours a day, utterly impossible and incredibly exhausting.
It now made sense to me why I suffered the way I did and how I was responsible for the majority of it. I had created so much of my own suffering by obsessively trying to escape it, and so it made no sense to stay on this path.
I am not saying I felt great when I finally let go of this compulsive need to solve myself, I didn’t. I had put my mind and body through so much and so there was a lot of healing still to go through, but all the extra suffering that this compulsion had created was no longer present. I had also now broken the cycle and given my body and mind the space they needed to heal and finally allowed new things to enter my day.
Learning to reconnect with life and leave the subject of you behind
The goal is to rejoin life, not spend all your time constantly obsessing about how you feel or what you need to do to get better. Ironically when I gave up this ‘Solving compulsion’ I found that more answers, more insights and understanding came to me naturally, without me having to look for them.
I learnt far more when I let go of trying to find answers than I did when I went looking for them. When you are so caught up in yourself, no fresh or clear thinking can come through. You can feel more mentally clogged up than ever and so no wisdom or answers appear. So in most cases, the harder you try and think your way out and the more searching you do, the further away you end up from your goal.
The people who have got the most out of my work are those that come back and say ‘I no longer obsess about my thoughts and emotions and now feel less mentally worn out because of it’ or ‘I no longer spend all day in my head trying to fix myself and so feel much more present’ or ‘I have now stopped battling with my anxiety or my moods. Because of this, I am starting to feel better and seeing much more overall progress’.
This is where any helpful information should take you, it should lead to letting go of certain behaviours, to help you let go and surrender deeper. It should never lead to more fighting, more thinking. or techniques and rituals.
Why trying to solve yourself doesn’t work
The reason trying to solve yourself doesn’t work is because you end up giving the subject more focus. Not only does this narrowed down focus strengthen the very thing you are trying to find relief from, but it also makes the subject more of an issue within your mind and why it keeps bringing it back up. If you are spending so much time on one subject, then the mind deems it more important than anything else and so starts to obsess about it.
Solving also has the opposite effect to what you are trying to achieve. If you want to feel better then obsessively ruminating is not the way to go about it. This constant ruminating about all things personal demands a lot of mental energy and effort. It drains you of vital brain power and keeps your mind constantly active, giving it no rest – the rest it so desperately needs to function properly. This is why you may find thinking and concentrating difficult, feel a lack of clarity, or suffer from mental congestion.
The constant mental activity is also why the mind can feel so noisy and busy, and the reason it never feels settled and calm. It also takes you away from life to the point where you can start to feel disconnected from it. How can you be present towards life when all your focus is upon you and how you are feeling?
The continuous struggle with your inner state also creates a lot of resistance within you and so creates more suffering, not less. Have you ever found struggling to ease any discomfort or have you found it only increases it?
An example of how solving made things worse
I remember getting terribly frustrated about my attention always being on me. I was stuck inside my head and found it so hard to be present. Looking back I know now that this was just a habit in my brain due to years of focusing on myself (another negative side effect of trying to fix myself).
I then started to read up on numerous articles about being too aware of yourself. I would search in my mind for answers, I fought with this feeling and tried to force my awareness off myself, yet all I was doing through these actions was focusing on myself and the issue even more, so the problem persisted.
I was again stuck in a loop of my own making. if I wanted to break the habit of focusing on myself then I had to accept this habit for now and no longer try and solve the issue. This would then take the focus off me completely and achieve the goal I had set out to do.
Can you now see how, in most cases, solving actually works against you?
The need to take a break from the subject of anxiety
A huge part of me letting go of the subject was not simply about ending the search for a solution, but also to go back to living. So instead of brooding at home and continue going over my predicament, I would go for a swim. Instead of spending hours searching for relief, I would go for a walk, and instead of spending all day trying to figure everything out, I would go out on my bike.
As you can see, I was not trying to ignore the subject; I was building up a new habit and giving my mind something else in which to immerse itself in. When I first started to add other things into my day, my anxiety was still there. I still felt somewhat disconnected from my surroundings and I had little enthusiasm over anything. My mind was still exhausted due to my past overthinking and the habit of thinking about the subject was still present. However, I understood that this would be there for a while but by adding new things into my day, then the habit would be broken and a new one would be formed.
I remember very early on with this new approach, visiting my local swimming baths. When I got into the pool, the other people there seemed strange, like I was in some kind of dream, and my mind still kept reverting back to me and the subject of anxiety. But I expected this and knew that things would not change overnight. In the past, I would have felt sorry for myself while questioning it all and trying to force normal feelings through more deep thinking. Suddenly, in that moment, I could see the loop I was in previously and why nothing had changed.
When I arrived home I was pleased that I had taken that first step. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, as I didn’t, but I didn’t go to enjoy it, I went to regain my life. After that, I went out more often without demanding or expecting anything. How I felt was how I felt. I no longer had any interest in obsessing about it or trying to change it.
Within a few weeks of doing all the things I had previously avoided, I felt almost normal at times, and the habit of thinking about me and the subject was genuinely starting to weaken. I now realised that if I wanted the old me back, then I had to pack in as much normal living as possible without continually questioning and getting down about how I felt and no longer trying to manipulate a different state, no matter how anxious, strange or detached I felt.
Stop obsessing about how you feel and start living
Living my life while taking how I felt with me was certainly starting to change me. No longer reading and obsessing about how to fix myself gave my mind a huge break and I could feel mental clarity begin to return. I also felt more engaged with my surroundings as my attention had switched from being internal to being external.
By no longer ruminating and hiding away, my general mood also started to improve. Within a few months of continuing in this way, I felt much better and the habit of thinking about the subject was entirely behind me. I was now thinking about what to have for lunch and what I would wear for the night out, rather than what technique I could come up with next to get through the day.
I recently had a comment on my blog from a lady who replied to someone who said they couldn’t stop thinking about anxiety, nor get over it. Here is her advice on what helped her.
Once I completely unfollowed all anxiety related stuff online, stopped reading books on the subject, stopped discussing it with others and finally decided that I was going to enjoy my life with or without anxiety present, then it finally started to go away. If you are still spending all your day trying not to feel anxiety, then you are still giving far too much attention to it.
It is much better to acknowledge you have anxiety and decide not to let it get in the way of living your life. Don’t try not to feel it. If you allow it to be there, then you have nothing to obsess and worry about. This approach will lead to your brain focusing on other subjects and you will start to feel engaged with the other things in your life and the world around you. Then one day, you will look back, and the subject will be a distant memory.
Someone recently asked me how I manage working with the subject of anxiety to the degree I do now. The truth is I manage my time well. If I ever feel I am overdoing it then I take some time off. I also rarely, if ever talk, about the subject outside of the work I do. I have plenty of time away from the subject, where I indulge in hobbies and socialising. Also, the subject is behind me now, so it doesn’t affect me when I write about it. It doesn’t bring back any uncomfortable emotions or memories; it is just an outlet to help others.
Tips for leaving the subject of anxiety behind you
- Go out and live your life as you usually would, don’t let how you feel stop you. If you want normal feelings to resurface, then you have to live the life you normally would.
- Learn to take breaks from the subject of anxiety and have the courage to leave the subject behind you. What I talk about in my books and on this blog is meant to eventually guide you away from the subject and take you back to living your life. Gathering knowledge is not intended to be a practice you do for the rest of your life.
- Instead of being obsessed with trying to fix yourself or find relief, take up a new hobby or go back to ones you enjoyed before. Go outside, take a walk or go visit friends, don’t let how you initially feel stop you. Learn to let go of your self-obsessed focus and rejoin life.
- People who give up smoking have a strong pull, out of habit, to put a cigarette in their mouth. The ones who finally give up are the ones who allow this habit to be present without indulging in it and then in time, the habit leaves them. It is the exact same principle. The habit to think about and go over the subject of anxiety and how you are feeling may be present, but it doesn’t mean you have to indulge in it. In time, and without your participation, that habit will begin to fall away, and your mind will naturally think of other things.
- Let go of all your compulsion to solve yourself or find instant relief. Reading information to educate yourself from time to time is fine but if you are spending all day trying to find relief or a solution, then you are on the wrong path.
- Finally, be patient. We all want the instant coffee approach where we can step out of discomfort and habits straight away, but unfortunately, it takes time. Trying to rush this process or getting frustrated because things aren’t changing overnight will only take you further away from your goal.
If you would like to read my full story of how I overcame anxiety then you can find further reading in my best selling book on the subject ‘At last a life’