A few minutes ago a persistent pang of anxiety rippled through my soul, kinda like a catfish wriggling through thick mud.

I thought I’d unpack it for you.

First thing we need to know: anxiety and worry are two different things. Worry is something we do; anxiety is something we feel. They are husband and wife, so to speak, but each one has it’s own personality.

Anxiety, like the frantic fishy I felt a minute ago, seems to come out of nowhere—just raw emotion. But nothing comes out of nowhere. Being an emotion, it also seems irrational, but again, it’s not. It makes total sense, if what you believe about a particular thing happens to be true. It usually isn’t, which means anxiety is a byproduct of something else, a ripple caused by careless stones tossed into the pool of worry.

I know what you’re thinking. I sat with an experienced counsellor over lunch last year and asked him about chemical imbalances. My question to him was, “Do chemical imbalances create anxiety, or amplify it?” “They amplify it,” he replied. They make it more difficult to deal with negative emotion, but they don’t create that emotion per se.

My experience would bear that out. My take? Anxiety is created when our past and our future hook up and give birth to a false prophecy. I’ll show you what I mean.

Our brains work by association, collecting trillions of bits of information as we live our lives. Our minds then grab this raw data and work tirelessly to organize it on the fly—creating boxes, file systems, tags, keywords, you name it. Why? So we can access it later, when our minds think we need it.

When I was in Junior High, I was utterly humiliated half-way through the dance unit in Phys-Ed. So now, more than twenty-five years later, the thought of dancing pretty much gives me hives because when I face a dancing situation, my mind says, “Oh, you’ve done something like this before.” When it pulls up the Junior High dance file, all the emotions locked into that memory burst loose like a barrel of rogue monkeys, stampeding into my present moment shouting “Abort, abort! You’ll be humiliated just like last time!”

Of course, this all happens in a millisecond. All I feel when faced with dancing is humiliation, and the anxiety associated with that happening again. So I don’t dance (except with Shauna or my daughter or Jesus, but that’s different). We shouldn’t feel guilty for any of this, it just happens. (Jesus can reach back into that memory and deal with the monkeys, but that’s another post for another day). 

Worry, on the other hand, is a choice. It happens when I choose to focus on the false prophecy and suck on it like a bad candy I picked up off the floor in the Airport when my mom wasn’t looking. When the monkeys scream “Abort!” worry grabs what they’re saying and scans ahead, projecting this “false prophecy” into my future. I imagine being humiliated, and my dancing career is done for.

Worry is a choice to leave the present moment to focus on a future that may or may not arrive, and certainly won’t arrive exactly like I’ve been rehearsing. Funny thing about worry, you can’t do it while you’re in the moment. Moments, you see, can only be lived. Worry is a head-trip into a fictional future, spending the present doing something other than what you’re doing. Worry can’t solve anything, and never results in fresh traction on a problem. The only fruit of worry is anxiety.

I’m finding that the best defense against worry is to simply be present. To celebrate the moment and refuse to leave it for monkey business of any kind.

Does this make any sense?