The Art of Struggle: Why You Should Do Difficult Activities to Manage Your Anxiety

When left alone, anxiety becomes a monster.

Obsession, ambition, and fear are always linked. The more ambitious you are, the more afraid. We often think of personality traits as separate entities, but in asking questions, we can just as often find their collaborators. Why are you ambitious? Because I’m afraid to be a loser. Why are you so obsessed? Because I’m afraid to fail. Anxiety is partially rooted in a desire to survive. Social status, financial success, and your social network all increase the probability of your survival. And, of course, they’re also fairly wonderful in themselves.

Most of my anxious clients are also highly competitive. You can pick any anxiety disorder; from OCD to GAD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, respectively), they’re simply natural warriors. But, sometimes, their competitive edge is taken from them. As they age, they disengage from sports. When they marry, their partners prefer for them to have more stable incomes. And when they have families, they demand most of their time. You would think that they’d settle into their new roles as they mature, that they’d shift away from their obsessive tendencies. However, often, they just become more anxious. They begin to focus on their health, the stability of their relationships, and even existential dread. It’s as though their minds, regardless of their new choices, are still wired to hyper-focus on survival.

Much of my treatment for anxiety disorders entails Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), wherein we explore the evidence and logic of the patient’s anxiety-invoking beliefs. But, CBT isn’t enough. These super anxious clients care deeply about meaning and tend to discover it in struggle. One of my clients, diagnosed with OCD, told me that his anxiety was once adaptive, noting a time when it was directed toward problem solving and professional growth in a much less stable career. He mentioned that, back then, his health was hardly ever on his mind. So, even though his anxiety became more manageable with therapy, his mind frequently continued to remind him of all of the reasons to worry. Wherever he found himself, regardless of the level of external pressure, his anxiety always found its way to daylight.

Another client, with OCPD (Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder), struggles with his friendships. He constantly looks for battles and, consequently, pushes people away. While some try to change him, we, instead, discuss the possibility of seeking out intellectual equals to debate. The list goes on, but the needs for struggle and achievement are invariably present. Some of us need achievement more than others. For people struggling with anxiety, achievement provides them with a sense of reassurance, both supporting one’s self-image and her sense of safety. In essence, success necessitates self-confidence, the belief that “I can make this happen!” Without it, the anxious person tends to fall apart.

We think that logical reappraisal is enough to quell the ruminations, but as long as there’s something to worry about and the anxious person feels insecure, his anxiety will persist. Although frowned upon by many, pride is the best antidote. And pride can be found in multiple forms. A client can feel somewhat proud of himself for changing a negative belief. She can be proud of herself for winning a debate. And she can be proud of herself for being a significant contributor in a highly stressful workplace. Fundamentally, it’s pride that gets them through another day (at least partially since love matters, too).

All of this sounds so black and white. Who wants to choose between obsessiveness and terror? And, honestly, it is. When I asked a client if acknowledging that her problems would never end (as they don’t for anyone) was helpful, she said it only made her feel much more anxious. Her mind needed to focus on what was solvable, something she could actually conquer. For the anxious, existential truths are scarier than the ordinary. So, when you remove their important goals, their minds are filled with unadulterated terror.

Thus, instead of trying to overcome our competitive natures, we ought to embrace them in healthy ways. Maybe leaving your boring nine to five isn’t such a bad idea. Perhaps resuming your marital arts hobby is the right answer. Whatever it is that makes you proud and happy, whatever makes you feel confident, go and do that thing. Exploring the logic of your beliefs, unfortunately, can only get you so far.

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