‘Being’ versus ‘doing’ – the fuel that feeds anxiety

We live in a society that tends to place value on ‘doing’. How many of us are guilty of wearing our busyness as a kind of badge of honour, piling on more and more commitments and responsibilities until our day can barely accommodate them? It can seem like time is in short supply and we wish we had more of it so we could find a little bit for ourselves. Yet when many of us finally find that opportunity for rest, the first thing we look for is something to do. We are often not very good at simply being and this is bad news for our nervous systems and the management of anxiety.

Think about the last time you allowed yourself to ‘be’ – some moment that was without any task or distraction, no creating that mental ‘to do’ list, no scrolling through news and social media on your phone. Many of us tend to frame this as a kind of wasted time. It comes with guilty thoughts along the lines of ‘so much to do and here I am aimlessly daydreaming’. Even when we make the decision to put aside time for ourselves we often still fall into the ‘doing’ trap – hopping in the car and speeding across the city to a yoga class, going for a walk or a run while focusing the entire time on what will need to be done afterwards. In this way, self-care becomes another box to be ticked.

A simple way of noticing the difference between ‘doing’ mode and ‘being’ mode is to consider your feet. How do you feel about them? Do you like them or would you change them? Where have they been? Where would you like them to take you? All of these thoughts can create tangents – “I don’t like my feet and, now that you mention it, I don’t think much of my legs either” or “I’d love to travel more but money is scarce right now”. There is a ‘doing’ quality to thinking in this way.

Now consider how your feet feel right now, in this moment. Move the focus of your attention from your head and thoughts down into the skin and muscle and bones and notice the sensations there. Imagine the blood pumping through then. Notice the contact between your soles and the ground beneath them – the texture of it, the temperature. Imagine letting go of any holding in your legs and really letting them sink into that surface.

If you can register the difference in experience here, then you have a sense of the vast difference between these two ways of living. Our nervous systems respond accordingly. Remember, that fight-or-flight part of the brain only understands ‘safe’ or ‘in danger’. The constant drive to ‘do’ – to change the world around us – tells this system that something is not right with that world. If you imagine it as a pot of water on a gas cooker hob, our anxiety is kept on a low simmer in case that ‘something’ becomes a direct threat.

To put it simply, when you ‘do’, you add fuel to your anxiety – the bright orange gas flame. When you let yourself ‘be’, you turn the dial down, perhaps to that slow blue glow. Or perhaps you might switch it off altogether for a moment, however fleeting. You might find you don’t miss anything particularly important.

Colin Heffernan Counselling Ballintemple, Cork