Reality Check: Loose Ends and Everyday Anxiety

Curious things can happen if we detach ourselves from technology for a while. I call that time “vacation,” an opportunity to notice things I might not pay attention to otherwise.

Knowing I’ll have no electronics, internet, or email to entertain and distract me, I plan ahead with reading material. One of my choices was by Dr. Martin Seligman, who is well known for his work in positive psychology.

This book was written 25 years ago, but I could hardly pass up a title as intriguing as, “What You Can Change… and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement.” I haven’t quite finished it, so I still have a ways to go in the self-improvement process.

Seligman looks at various areas where we often try to make changes, including emotional (anxiety, depression, anger) and habits (sex, dieting, alcohol). Some things we can change; others we can’t. The goal is to help us see which is which.

In the discussion of everyday anxiety, Seligman says, “I am astonished that when my own life is going smoothly—work, love, and play all in place, which is not very often—I begin to fret about anything I can find that is wrong.”

The positive psychology guy frets? Who knew?

He observes that most of us, much of the time, are drawn to catastrophic interpretations. Apparently, it’s not just me! And, it’s not just you, either.

Seligman also points out that anxiety has a useful purpose in our lives. “Anxiety warns us that danger lurks. It fuels planning and replanning, searching for alternative ways out, rehearsing action.”

That’s not what I want to hear. I want my everyday anxieties to be meaningless. And I’d like an easy, painless way to get rid of them, so I can live in comfortable bliss. And while we’re at it, I’d like a purple unicorn, too.

As those wishes don’t seem to be coming to fruition, what might be helpful? Let’s connect Seligman’s not-so-comforting observation that most of us have everyday anxiety to Dr. Glasser’s choice theory.

Choice theory suggests that behaviour has four components: acting, thinking, feeling, and physiology.

How about using our physiological signals to identify what lurking danger our everyday anxiety is trying to warn us about?

According to Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” So, I watched.

For me, the physiological symptom of what Glasser calls “anxietying” is a stomach twinge. Something is amiss and it doesn’t feel good.

My observation is that the thoughts that trigger this twinge for me are around loose ends: work to prepare; emails to answer; clutter to organize; relationships to nurture.

Rationally, I know that I also have finished tasks. Some were even successful. But that was yesterday. Today brings another collection of undone tasks.

Also rationally, I could tie up some of those loose ends. But some of them are hard. Or I don’t know how to do them. Or they might cause conflict. Or I have convinced myself there is no way to deal with them.

Glasser suggests that action can change feelings. My action now is to make a list—a big list of all the uncompleted stuff that pops into my head and triggers that sick little twinge in my gut.

Assuming I have a book big enough to hold that list, I can then, perhaps, separate the tasks that I can do from the ones that have no good solution, or that need more decisions, money, or help.

By the way, Seligman did offer some suggestions to reduce everyday anxiety—one is progressive relaxation. It’s not a purple unicorn, but if you want information, just let me know.

Do you have everyday anxiety? What triggers it? What do you do?

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