Milton reminds us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Think of a time when you were anxious about something—a job interview, a loved one’s birthday, a first date, or a doctor’s appointment. The human response to uncertainty is often anxiety, regardless of whether the stress-inducing event is negative or positive, sad or happy. This is usually tied to not knowing the outcome ahead of time, thus causing worry. The worry is actually an unconscious way of controlling things; in other words, if we worry we feel we are doing something to control for all the possible negative outcomes and will be prepared for the mishap. The irony here is that if we go through the event reasonably well, which we often do, our worry caused us to feel all the pain we might have had if we had actually experienced the negative outcome. On the other hand, if the negative outcome should come to fruition, we are often calm and resolute since we have already experienced the outcome in our mind over and over again.
Often people become wedded unconsciously to their worry. With help, they come to understand that this pattern of worry may have begun earlier in their lives and served as a protective device and that their attachment to worry is really more about old wine flowing in a new bottle. It is important to become more mindful of your thought process and to notice if you are engaging in faulty thinking. Is the thought that is making you anxious a fact or is it based on fear? For instance, are you in a new relationship and afraid that your partner is going to break things off? Are there real reasons for that fear or are memories of a past breakup coloring your view?
When you have a negative thought, ask yourself how that thought makes you feel – probably not very uplifted and more likely uneasy and out of sorts. Conversely, if you have a positive thought, ask yourself how that thought makes you feel – most likely much better than having the negative thought. This is an illustration of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In any given moment, we can exercise our own power to choose what we think which will in turn impact our feelings and ultimately drive our behavior. In other words, do we choose a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell? Although this may take some practice, the first step is to become mindful of our thought process and ask ourselves if our thoughts are based on fact or fiction.
On the other hand, there may be a life situation causing unrelenting stress and anxiety. The situation could be a troubled marriage, a serious health or financial concern, having an untenable job or job loss. Whatever the precipitant, it is important that you identify and address the source of the anxiety. Prolonged stress and anxiety can lead to health problems as they impact our immune system and put us at a higher risk for developing disease.
In any case, if anxiety is affecting your daily life, you should consider professional intervention.