Everyone has some anxiety. It’s a normal emotion that we actually need, because it protects us from danger. We don’t want to get rid of it. For those with excessive worry or anxiety, however, improving your ability to differentiate between danger and discomfort is important. Tolerating discomfort and learning how to better respond to that kind of anxiety is what helps prevent excessive anxiety from ruling our lives.
All of this I get on a professional and personal level. I’ve struggled with worry as far back as I can remember. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about helping others who experience it.
What truly amazes me is when I meet someone who doesn’t struggle with excessive worry. I’ve also come to realize that there are several lessons we can learn from them. Here are 5 of my favorites.
Since you know how much I value research and evidence-based solutions, here’s my disclaimer for this particular list: it’s by no means exhaustive. These generalizations are purely anecdotal but can be helpful, nonetheless.
- They don’t get stuck as frequently in the worry rabbit hole (or they pull themselves out faster).
It’s easy to sink down a rabbit hole searching for the “right/perfect/certain” answer, as if it exists. Absolute certainty is an illusion. Often the more we search for it, the more worried and anxious we become.
- Even though things may feel personal, they don’t take things personally.
How many times have you assumed you knew what someone else was thinking or feeling? This is really common — just because something may feel like it was done to hurt you doesn’t mean that was the person’s intention. I’ve said it before and remind myself daily that just because I think or feel something does not mean it’s true. And often it’s not!
- They’re more comfortable with reasonable risk.
Research shows that people with higher levels of anxiety have higher levels of harm avoidance — in other words, they avoid risk and seek safety. Sometimes, however, what’s considered dangerous or threatening is exaggerated or disproportionate to the actual situation.
- They’re more comfortable being sure enough and living in the gray.
Learning to be “sure enough” is an important life skill. When we’re feeling anxious, it’s normal to want an ironclad guarantee to relieve our discomfort. However, this is often unrealistic, since uncertainty is reality (as uncomfortable as that is to accept).
There are no guarantees.
We can get better at tolerating the discomfort the more we practice accepting those thoughts. For me personally, we’re starting the college process again for my middle child, and it’s a great reminder for my son that there is no perfect school for him. He needs to be sure enough — not certain — that he could see himself there. There is no guarantee one school with be absolutely perfect every day. A lot goes into a school being the right fit.
These are people who embrace the “both-ands” instead of the “either-ors” and for whom life is not black and white. For someone who’s anxious about social events, for instance, it’s not uncommon to hear thoughts like “I could stay home and be happy or go out and be unhappy.” Someone who lives in the gray might say “parts could be fun, and parts might not. I’ll still have time to watch Netflix after.”
- They don’t typically jump to the worst-case scenario.
I remember when I went to therapy for my fear of flying, the therapist told me to channel my “highly creative imagination to better use.” While not the most comprehensive suggestion, there is a kernel of truth to the notion that worriers can be very creative storytellers. I could create a story in seconds tying any sound, look from the flight attendant or any other sign I determined to be out of place during a flight to an imminent crash.
- They believe they can cope with whatever comes their way.
This naturally reduces their need for excessive reassurance. Because they don’t over-interpret situations as threatening or dangerous, they seem to have an implicit belief that they’ll be able to cope. At the very least, they’re not worrying about whether they will or won’t be able to in the absence of any real situation.
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it” is their motto versus “I need to over-plan and problem solve every possible scenario that could happen, because I don’t trust I’ll be able to manage if it does.”
- They don’t interpret their feelings as “signs” of how they should respond.
When we respond or act, we want to always do so intentionally and thoughtfully. When we’re anxious, however, it’s easy to react from feelings. This is where the distinction between discomfort and danger is so important. I may feel discomfort during turbulence asking for a raise, setting boundaries with a child, BUT that doesn’t mean the situation is dangerous, threatening, or need to be avoided. If anything, it’s a sign you need to lean into the feeling and ride it out.