Relieve Anxiety by Fleeing Into a Purpose

There was once an ocelot at the Seattle zoo that was scratching himself. The zookeepers didn't know what to do about it. The ocelot kept peeling the hair off its legs. They tried giving him a female but that didn't help. They tried changing his diet. They tried a lot of things but he kept scratching himself.

Finally someone came up with the idea that in the wild ocelots eat birds, so instead of the usual raw meat they fed him, they put an unplucked chicken into the cage. And sure enough, the ocelot plucked the feathers off the chicken and stopped scratching himself.

Just like that ocelot, human beings have needs. These needs are built in. And one of them is we need a sense of purpose.

Below are three ways you can use your need for purpose to relieve your anxiety.

The first one is flow. Flow is a psychological state characterized by absorption in a task. There are certain conditions that you can create to make flow more likely. The most important of these is that the task must be challenging to you, but not too challenging. Ideally, the challenge matches your skill level. When you're trying to do something and the challenge matches your skill level, it absorbs all of your attention, and there is no mental room for thoughts that would make you feel anxious.

Researchers have sometimes tested what goes through people's minds. What they found is that if you don't have anything particular on your mind, your mind is like a random thought generator. But when you come upon a random thought that upsets you or that causes you anxiety, your mind sticks on that thought and keeps thinking about it. Anxious thoughts are compelling.

But so are thoughts about a purpose. So when you have a purpose, your random thoughts tend to drift toward your purpose rather than drifting toward upsetting or anxious thoughts.

Most of the research on this topic has been done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He originally got interested in the subject because when he was in college, he had a roommate who was a painter. He noticed his roommate would become very absorbed in creating a painting, but then when he was done, he would simply set the painting aside and start a new painting. Csikszentmihalyi I thought that was odd. He thought the purpose of painting was to create the painting. But what he noticed was the painter wanted to be painting, not have a painting.

So Csikszentmihalyi I spent most of his career doing experiments to find out more about this. One of the surprising things he discovered in his research was that people were more often in a better mood when they were at work than they were when they were off work! Most people are more likely to have a clear purpose while they are at work than they are when they're off work. A lot of people don't really know how to use their leisure time in a way that keeps them in flow.

So one way to lower your anxiety is to have a clear goal, a challenging goal, ideally something meaningful to you or important to you or fascinating. And then get absorbed in that purpose.

Another way you can relieve anxiety by fleeing into a purpose is by using your hands. Our modern world is full of conveniences, and that's wonderful. However, a lot of our brain is devoted to our hands. And when we do something with our hands — when we make something physical that produces a visible, tangible, meaningful result in the world — our brains reward us with good feelings. It makes you feel bolder and more confident and happier. It lowers anxiety.

Have you ever seen the homunculus man? It's a representation of how much of your brain is devoted to different parts of your body. So, for example, the tongue is really huge, because a lot of nerve endings and brain circuits are devoted to the tongue. But one of the other things that are huge is the hands because a lot of our brainpower is devoted to our hands, and when you do something with your hands, it activates a lot of your brain, and it makes you feel better.

The Amish, who live as people did before all our modern conveniences, have very low rates of depression and anxiety. They make their own butter, sew their own clothes, build their own houses. They use their hands a lot.

You can learn more about this from the neuroscientist, Kelly Lambert, in her book, Lifting Depression.

So one way to relieve your anxiety is to find some purpose that requires you to physically use your hands to make something tangible, visible, and meaningful in the world. For example, gardening, knitting, building a bookshelf, working with clay, cooking, etc.

The third way to relieve anxiety by fleeing into a purpose is by taking advantage of what's called a helpers high. When you help someone else, your body produces endorphins which are similar to morphine, that your body produces to make you feel good. You get a sense of connection when you help someone too, and that produces oxytocin, which feels good also. Oxytocin is really the body's antidote to anxiety and stress.

As I write this, it is March, 2020 and the whole country is shutting down because of the coronavirus. And it has been amazing to see how many people have stepped up to help other people. For example, people are putting on these local neighborhood websites what they would be willing to do to help other people, like offering babysitting or shopping for older people who are in a vulnerable category and should have as little contact with people as possible.

Schools closed, and some children relied on those lunches at school, so some people jumped in and volunteered to distribute lunches to children. A lot of people are sharing good articles on Facebook, clearly with the intention to help people. A lot of people are looking for anything they can find that's useful or helpful for others and then sharing those with their friends and family.

I just saw a story of the problems they've been having an Italy, being overwhelmed with people in their hospitals and not having enough respirators. And somebody with a 3D printer stepped in and figured out how to make the part that tends to wear out, and started cranking these parts out with his 3D printer, which got the respirators working again.

Another story was about a fitness trainer in Spain doing classes for people stuck in their apartments. He was on a lower building and all around him were apartment buildings with balconies. People were out there following along with the trainer while he put them through an exercise routine.

I read a local story of a man who realized there was information about the coronavirus that some immigrants from Ethiopia didn't understand, and since he spoke their language, he started a Facebook page that share that information with people in the Ethiopian community.

The numbers of ways that you can find to help others is unlimited.

So that is three different ways you can relieve your anxiety with a sense of purpose. Of course, some activities will do more than one of these. For example, playing the guitar for someone produces flow and gives you a helpers high. Volunteering at a shelter uses your hands and gives you a helpers high. Knitting a scarf for someone use your hands and gives you a helper high. Getting on a potter's wheel and making pottery uses your hands and produces flow.

One of the best ways to relieve anxiety is to flee into a purpose.

I have made a podcast on this same topic. Check it out here.

Adam Khan is the author of Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot, Principles For Personal Growth, and Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.

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