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The Good Parts of Anxiety

Using our Anxiety to Motivate Ourselves Through Procrastination

I’ve been thinking about motivation and change quite a bit. Actually, as a therapist, I think about these things quite a bit as that is one of the core aspects of what people come to me for. What creates change in us? What motivates us? We can all think of plenty of times that we have been motivated and completed things as well as times that we could not seem to motivate ourselves to complete something that seemed completely reasonable. It’s frustrating when we feel stuck or something seems completely reasonable and we can’t seem to just complete it. I can think of plenty of things I have been well intentioned to do that would only take a few minutes that I for some reason fail to get done.

In school, I was often finishing my assignments days before or even the night before things were due. It’s not that I didn’t care about what I was studying, and I definitely wanted to feel the freedom of having things completed, but I could not be like some of my peers who would complete things weeks in advance. I was enlightened when my program director, Dr. Klemm, explained procrastination as part of one of my classes. Dr. Klemm explained that we typically complete things when our anxiety hits a threshold that motivates us to complete things. This is one of the cases where anxiety is actually helpful.

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How can Anxiety be a Good Thing?

So often we think about anxiety as a negative thing, but this is where anxiety actually works for us. There is a reason that we have anxiety and it’s designed to motivate us to do things. So, the peer in my class who completed things a month ahead of time had her anxiety hit that threshold a month before assignments were due. My anxiety doesn’t spike until a few days beforehand. If my anxiety doesn’t go up enough to hit that threshold then I won’t be motivated enough to work on something. That goes for most of us. We can all think of someone who quit smoking or lost significant weight when they were confronted by a doctor with difficult results. Their anxiety goes up to the point where they are motivated to make a change. The trick to doing things before the last minute is to listen to the low levels of anxiety that we have earlier on. We can also do things like set earlier deadlines for ourselves and try to initiate that anxiety earlier.

Denial and Optimism Bias

This brings up another interesting point about change which is denial. There are a lot of things that we are in denial about and thus we don’t have anxiety about them. There is an idea called the optimism bias. It’s the idea that bad things won’t happen to us. This is the label we give to those who believe they won’t increase risk of injury if they don’t wear a seatbelt, they won’t get lung cancer if they smoke their whole life, they won’t be the one whose health is impacted if they are significantly overweight. Those are more extreme examples, but many of us engage in terminal uniqueness in smaller ways. We think our relationships won’t fail even if we don’t invest time in them, we eat unhealthy food and don’t think we will gain weight or feel worse, or we avoid fixing that small thing on our car thinking it won’t get any worse. Another term in this realm is the optimism bias. We believe “it won’t happen to me.” What’s even more ironic is how we feel surprised when something totally foreseeable, in retrospect, happens.

Awareness Can Help with Procrastination and Create Healthy Anxiety

We want to bring awareness to the things that we might be in denial about or don’t want to deal with. The person trying to lose weight counts their calories and weighs themselves to build awareness. The person who is in denial avoids doing those things because they don’t want to know. If we really want to make change, we need to build awareness. Awareness will help to create the healthy anxiety and motivation that we need to make a change. Awareness is what changes when the doctor gives us bad health news and suddenly our threshold for anxiety is met and we have motivation. The key to changing anything is awareness. We have to be aware of a problem to change it. We have to build awareness of various aspects of a problem to find novel solutions. Too often we simply beat ourselves up about a problem rather than build awareness about it, accept it, and search for compassionate solutions to solving it. Beating ourselves up about things doesn’t actually help. It sometimes actually makes us engage in indulgent, guilty pleasures further.

Escape vs. Acceptance

Too often we want to simply escape our anxiety and avoid it. Instead, we need to listen to it, accept it, and try to do something about it. This is assuming that we are experiencing a healthy anxiety about something real in our lives. Unhealthy anxiety can be managed via therapy and healthy coping skills. The important part is to differentiate between healthy anxiety that is trying to motivate us to do necessary and valued things in our life and the unhealthy anxiety that causes discomfort and unnecessary pain in our lives.

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Getting Help with Anxiety

If you want help with procrastination or creating a healthy relationship with anxiety please reach out to Garrett Wilk at Shoreside Therapies in Whitefish Bay WI.

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Garrett Wilk, LPC, SAC

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