Originally published on February 17, 2021
Einstein Applied to Anxiety Tells Us To Stop Overthinking Things
Albert Einstein is often credited with saying that “we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” In a nutshell, Einstein’s quote means that we often need to think outside the box and approach our problems in novel ways. Only then can we see such unique conundrums in the lights required for moving past them.
While this quote has many potential applications, one of the places it’s most relevant is in relation to our mental health. Here’s what I mean by that.
Those of us who’ve really been down the anxiety rabbit hole before know just how destructive cyclical and ruminative thinking can be. One minute we’re hesitantly booking a flight to a foreign country and, the next, we’re freaking out over whether we’ll have a panic attack on board or if the trip itself will be safe.
One way we typically try to alleviate such fears is to rehearse these situations over and over in our minds. In the case of a frightening upcoming trip, we may attempt to visualize ourselves on the plane or out in the streets of our destination in hopes of proving to ourselves that what we’re trying to do is possible or safe, or that we won’t have a panic attack in the middle of said situation.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it’s often the very kind that perpetuates our anxiety. The reason for this is that this style of thinking is based upon fear — fear that we can’t do the things we want, that the outcomes we desire won’t transpire, or that we’ll have a nervous breakdown as we move toward them.
When we start down this path of thinking, regardless of our good intentions with it, we signal to our brains and bodies that we’re uncertain as to how things will play out in our lives. That is, we tell our minds that we really don’t know if we’ll be safe or comfortable on our vacation. This uncertainty tells our bodies to prepare for danger, unleashing a wide array of neurotransmitters and stress hormones in our brains and bloodstreams.
This bodily response often then leads us to react correspondingly. Though this can take many different forms, the two most common are: becoming even more fearful in response to our body’s readying of the cannons and doubling down on our questioning, ruminative thought patterns.
This leads me to another problem with this kind of thinking — and one that you can likely see coming already — it often continues on and on until we make the conscious decision to stop it. With just one more attempt at successfully visualizing our desired outcomes, we tell ourselves, we’ll finally feel confident or secure and be able to put the entire situation down, mentally. Sadly, anxiety rarely works like that.
Instead, our visualization attempts typically only lead to more cycles of questioning, fear, and rumination. It’s not until we methodically (or sometimes accidentally) stop the contemplative thought train in its tracks that we finally rid ourselves of the anxiety associated with it. This is because the stress we feel in such situations is mostly a product of our uncertainty and doubt. If we really knew everything would be fine, we wouldn’t frantically question or overthink the problem, and, thus, we wouldn’t feel so terrible.
This is also precisely what “Einstein applied to anxiety” means. Since questioning is often the very thing that gets us to or keeps us in our anxious states, then no form of it will ever lead us away from it, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that it will.
Unfortunately, however, it can be tough to really grasp such a notion. This is because we’re often so consumed by anxiety in the moment that we rarely allow ourselves to put down our questioning, step back from it, and get a better glimpse of the whole picture in front of us. When we finally do take that step back, we give ourselves the ability to see just how right Einstein truly is with his statement.
Thus, as hard as it may be to do in the middle of a fear-inducing situation, we must resolve to either stay away from such dangerous lines of thinking or consciously pull ourselves out of them once we’ve fallen into them. We must, as the name of this blog and brand suggest, get and stay out of our heads.
Though this is one of the most confusing and paradoxical things about anxiety (after all, shouldn’t trying to solve a problem help lead us to a solution?), given enough first-hand experience with it, I think we’ll all eventually come to the same Einstein-esque conclusions. That is, we’ll realize how much worse our constant questioning in the face of fear makes us feel, and we’ll give up such destructive lines of thought in exchange for more peaceful ones in our future dances with fear.
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