It’s been a long day! Heck, it’s been a long week, month and maybe even year, and all most us want to do is head home and do nothing. This is how many of my patients feel on a daily basis. However, rather than this downtime being relaxing, these patients find they get great anxiety from sitting and doing nothing. This begs the question, can doing nothing lead us to have anxiety?
Anxiety, stress and the roller coaster of emotions are part of being human; however, some people struggle more with this. In the past, it was thought that anxiety and depression were due to a “chemical imbalance”, and yet despite the fact there are medications that help by changing a chemical in our brain called serotonin, there has been no good research to show that such a thing as a chemical imbalance exists in humans.
Next came the cognitive behavioral scientists that said the problem is “how we think” and individuals with anxiety have poor coping skills and regularly suffer from racing thoughts that are negative. As unfriendly as this theory sounds, this view of anxiety has remained the dominant view of anxiety to this day. The idea here is that anxiety leads to racing negative thoughts and not the other way around, but this could be wrong.
Our modern era gives researchers more tools and access to people through a variety of means, and some have turned to engaging the public via phone apps. One research team created an app called “Track Your Happiness” to find out when, and what makes people happy. What they found surprised everyone! By having the phone randomly popping up a message of “what are you doing right now” and “how happy are you right now” the researches found that most of us suffer from anxiety and that the anxiety is worse when we are doing nothing, or better put, when our minds are left to wander in thought.
This research shows that when we are not focusing on a specific task, our minds will wander which can lead to feelings of anxiety. What we need to recognize is that humans are complex beings with brains that are programmed for problem solving. The best evidence of this is to simply look at the games that we play on our phones. How many people do you see playing games on their phones while riding the bus, subway or train? Suddenly, these research results make complete sense. The human mind left unfocused will automatically look for a problem to solve, and as all problems have the potential to be interpreted as negative, then it makes sense that a wandering mind will automatically start to experience anxious thoughts.
I love when modern science backs up old wisdom. When I first learned about the research from the “track your happiness” project, I instantly thought of an old Confucius saying, “thinking once is too little, think three times is too much, we should think twice”. We all know there is a danger in not thinking about things thoroughly, but we also know over-thinking can be just as bad.
Easing an Anxious Mind
What is great about this research is that it points out how and when our minds start to over-think. It also points out the solution – that wandering minds need to be engaged. Some of the best ways to engage our minds are in social interactions, art and creativity; after all we are not only problem solvers we are also social beings that like to make beautiful and fun things.
The next time you have nothing to do and you feel your mind growing anxious, try engaging in a problem-solving activity such as Sudoku or cross-words, reading a book, or checking out some calming apps on your phone. There are meditation apps you can use that will help you to calm your mind wherever you are. Of course these are just a few examples of things you can do, and I encourage everyone to find their own personal way to engage their mind with meaningful yet non- stressful tasks.
I don’t want to say we all should never stop and think about ourselves and our life, but the next time you are having some anxiety ask your self when did these thought begin and how helpful are these thoughts.