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Anxiety and the Impulse to Act: Resist the Urge, Find Peace

Anxiety often causes impatience. It's a unique type of impatience, though--not that feeling of annoyance that comes from being mildly inconvenienced, but a deeper sense of immediacy or urgency that makes us believe that we have to act on a sudden thought or emotion now because it is our only chance and disasters might happen if we don't take action immediately. It's also different than the impulsivity that makes people do things without thinking them through. The impulse to act driven by anxiety happens because of too much thinking. It's possible to resist the urge to act and operate from a sense of peace rather than anxiety. 

Anxiety-Driven Impulse to Act

All types of anxiety involve worries and worse-case scenarios. While each person's anxiety is unique to them, all anxiety, whether an anxiety disorder or not, involves negative thoughts and emotions about a situation. 

These thoughts feel immediate, urgent, and accurate. With anxiety, when we think of something, anything, it tends to grow in importance in our minds. A primary feature of anxiety is that it makes us think, think, and overthink. The mind is incredibly creative, and it takes one thought and adds to it, enhancing and enriching it. This can be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, though, anxiety elbows its way into our thoughts and creates its own stories. These stories typically involve bad things that happened already, even a millisecond ago, or might happen in the future, immediate or distant. 

Negative thoughts generate negative emotions, and together, thoughts and emotions feed on each other and grow. They're very uncomfortable, and they induce stress. The whole body reacts to these anxious thoughts and emotions, and the fight-or-flight response kicks in. We feel an urge to do something, to take immediate action, whether that be fighting or fleeing, challenging or avoiding. (There is also a "freeze" response that is paralyzing, but even that involves an urge for instant relief.) 

Recently, I was participating in a group meditation when a thought popped into my head. Naturally, it led to a rush of other, related thoughts that caused anxiety. I had the urge to leave the meditation, so I could immediately do something about the situation I was thinking about. I resisted the urge, though, and in doing so, my anxiety dissipated, and I was able to experience inner peace despite the fact that I hadn't completely forgotten about the original thought. 

How to Resist Anxiety's Impulse to Act and Create Inner Peace

It takes practice, patience, and persistence, but it is possible to experience an anxious thought without getting caught up in it, feeling the stressful impulse to act on it. It involves an understanding of the nature of thoughts and the ability to pause and allow discomfort.

Anxiety tells us all sorts of stories. We imagine the negative consequences of this or that, and we create tons of worst-case scenarios. These anxiety-created stories are just that: stories. Human thoughts aren't always accurate, reliable, and true. Think of two people seeing the same movie and discussing it afterward. Quite likely, each person has a different opinion, and even if both share the same general reaction (liking or disliking the movie), the reasons are different, and the scenes and dialogue that each person remembers are different. This doesn't mean that they saw two different movies. It means that they each have their own thoughts about the movie. The movie remains the movie exactly as it is, but two people now have two unique interpretations of it. 

When we understand and appreciate that thoughts don't always represent reality and are instead our own (or anxiety's) interpretation of something, we gift ourselves with the opportunity to pause:

  • We can take a few slow, deep breaths to turn off the fight-or-flight response and restore the proper circulation of blood and oxygen to our body and brain.
  • We can distance ourselves from those thoughts and associated emotions by reminding ourselves, "I'm having the thought that_____." In acceptance and commitment therapy, this is known as defusion, de-fusing, or separating ourselves from our negative beliefs and emotions.

Once we've paused, we are then in a position to intentionally choose our response rather than impulsively reacting. We can find inner stillness despite the discomfort that the original thought created. Then, even though anxious thoughts are present in our mind (anxiety never fully disappears but instead becomes muted, something in the background rather than a force dictating our lives), we can be at peace knowing that we don't have to react impulsively and with urgency to every thought in our mind. 

For me, sitting in meditation helps strengthen this process. Ironically, when I sit in silence and concentrate on something other than my thoughts, my mind often jumps on the opportunity to fill the space with "urgent" thoughts. But in simply being aware of this, labeling the thoughts as only thoughts, and breathing deeply, I can remain calm, resisting any impulse to act on a thought. Ultimately, it's not the absence of anxious thoughts that brings inner peace but our ability to be still with them and resist the urge for immediate action. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, April 8). Anxiety and the Impulse to Act: Resist the Urge, Find Peace, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, April 12 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2021/4/anxiety-and-the-impulse-to-act-resist-the-urge-find-peace



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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