Anxiety and the "right answer" fallacy

I have a list of things to try when I’m feeling anxious. Things like:

  • Going for a walk or a run
  • Journalling
  • Talking to a friend or family member
  • Sketching
  • Meditating
  • Taking one of my meds
  • Reading
  • Listening to a podcast

The trouble is, when I’m overwhelmed with anxiety, deciding what to do to manage it can be an almost impossible task. This often leads me to freeze and end up doing nothing.

“Whatever you do, don’t get it wrong”

One reason for this is the belief that there’s a right answer hidden amongst them and the stakes for getting it wrong are high. Kind of like Deal or No deal for mental health.

“Make the wrong choice and prepare to feel even worse than you do now.”—a frightening prospect when you’re feeling awful already.

Another issue is that when I’m really anxious and my brain is racing, it’s often impossible to find a soothing thought. I try to imagine myself on the other side of doing the various things on the list and if I don’t imagine myself feeling better, I write them off as “wrong answers”.

But thoughts are great at lying to us and feelings are prone to following suit.

Anxiety is a pessimist. It’s there to protect, and when it goes into overdrive, it labels almost everything as a risk.

Just do something

The bad news is that when it comes to fixing anxiety, there’s rarely a silver bullet: a single option guaranteed to make it stop.

The good news is that knowing this can release the pressure of finding the “right answer”, and help us move forward with one of the options on our list.

And it doesn’t even have to be done well. “Do it badly” has become a useful mantra I use when I catch myself stuck in indecision.

In the end, doing something almost always feels better than doing nothing.