Why Trying Harder Doesn’t Make Anxiety Better

In many areas of life if you try harder, focus more, consciously push further, then performance and success improve.  It is tempting to extend that logic to all areas of life, but medically that principle does not always work.  In truth, only specific portions of our body’s activities are open to conscious guidance, while many other realms function below the level of daily awareness.  They are “sleeping” functions. What are these? One, quite literally, is sleep; but other related “sleeping” processes include recuperation, regeneration, digestion, and metabolism. These don’t necessarily get better by trying harder.  Just ask yourself: “When I am having trouble sleeping, does trying harder to fall asleep make it better?” or “If I have a stomach ache, does concentrating on the pain make it go away faster?” The answer is usually no.

Trying to do everything better can become pretty one-sided. Then, perhaps without even realizing it, we get stuck in little, consciousness short-circuits that impact our health. One obvious example is falling asleep. Think back to a night when you knew that you needed a good night’s sleep in order to be rested for a big even the next day and not being able to fall asleep. You feel desperate that you need to fall asleep soon, look at the clock, get upset that it is already so late.  Another short-circuit: we might suddenly be startled or panic, and then we feel short of breath (because in that moment we feel our breathing more, and breathing is normally  a largely unconscious process).  Being consciously aware of our breath makes us worry that there now might be something wrong with our lungs, which brings more panic—which makes it feel even harder to breathe. A last example is pain.  When we feel pain, we get worried, get. Whenever we are worried, the way our senses and nervous system take in impressions intensifies (as part of our built-in emergency-self-protective-hypervigilance).  Increased vigilance is designed to protect from a threat or intruder, but increased vigilance also brings greater perception of pain and discomfort. In other words, when anxious, we notice how our body feels, moves, breathes, pulses, and hurts more. Our awareness of pain now seems stronger, which makes us worry that something additional might be wrong. We can get stuck in a cycle of pain—anxiety, more pain—more anxiety. That little circle can go round and around and around.

What to do? We need tools. We have to find helpers to soften attention and break the cycle. There are many different methods. Some depend on outside substances, like alcohol, marijuana, food, or opioids.  Those all stimulate and emphasize the more sleeping parts of our physiology, though in different ways and with differing intensity. The challenge is that they can build other kinds of short-circuits, which instead of stuck attention create dependence or addiction.  Other pathways can be found, however, that depend less on outside influence and instead help us connect back to our own, innate capacities. Let’s name them and think of them, almost like three sisters in a fairy tale: rhythm, variety, and reminder.

Rhythm carries us.  Whenever we are able to create consistent rhythms (such as going to bed and getting up at the same time, eating meals at the same time, relaxing or meditating at the same time each day), then we don’t have to rely too much on consciously guiding our sleepiness or our appetite. They just naturally unfold at the right time.  How consistent does the rhythm need to be to become established?  This is usually a month (28 days or more). That is the rhythm of our life forces (also called our “chi,” or “etheric body,” or the “archeus”). Once we do something rhythmically for a month it starts to unconsciously carry and aid us.

Variation means that there is a spectrum of activity in our life, that there are times when we are very active, very engaged, working hard, as well as times when we are completely at rest.  Technology is probably the greatest modern disruptor to variation. Consider: how differently does your body function when you are hard at work at a computer (doing emails, writing a report, creating spreadsheets), versus when you are watching a movie or show, or casually surfing the internet?  There is actually not much physiologic difference—both are highly attention-driven. Now, consider the difference between carrying groceries and then later sitting and reading a book. More difference. Now consider the difference between running, digging, or swimming until you are completely out of breath and then sitting or lying completely still. Much more variation.  Whenever we incorporate a larger spectrum of activity into our days, we support more aspects of our physiology—conscious and unconscious—and this supporting is what our bodies actually want to do and were made to do.  Variation builds broad strength and flexibility.

And now we come to reminder. A reminder is usually something you can’t find or create on your own.  You need another person to help.  A reminder is commonly a friend, a therapist, a loved-one, a counselor, who reminds us and teaches us how to shift out of stuck patterns. Reminders are also all therapies that stimulate our bodies, and our consciousness, to move in renewed ways. And that actually, as a therapy, is also a pretty good definition for an anthroposophic medicine as compared to a conventional medicine. Anthroposophic medicines are reminders for different parts of our being.  And they can be steady companions, which are not addictive. I personally have great love and appreciation for Anthroposophic medicines because they offer very special tools towards finding better health and balance, but which work in a largely unconscious way.

Just as we love our family, we can love and appreciate our three sisters: rhythm, variation, and reminder.

Dr. Blanning

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