For quite some time I was confused about two contradictory pieces of advice. The first piece of advice said that I should try to reduce anxiety by developing a stillness of mind. From my initial interpretation, I had assumed that this meant I should think less. I’d always been hyperanalytical and an extreme overthinker. If it could be delved into deeply, you could guarantee that I’d be delving… until I got bored and decided to delve elsewhere, that is.

The second piece of advice said that I should try to keep busy. The term “busy” could mean many things, but I first took it to mean that I should jump from one activity to the other as quickly as possible without so much as a breath in between. I’ve never been fond of work, and “busy” sounds too much like work for me to get all giddy at the prospect that work will somehow reduce my anxiety. (I always laugh at people who think a ridiculously rigid work ethic is somehow their best character trait. I’ll expand more on this in a later post, I promise.)

So, is it possible to have a still mind while simultaneously being busy?

Absolutely. My problem was in my assumption that busy was synonymous with frantic and disorganized. In truth, an engaged mind is a still mind, but only when you allow yourself to become whatever it is you’re doing. This is essentially the practice of mindfulness, for which I’m an ardent advocate.

When your mind is allowed to wander into the world of fear, you’re likely spending your time and energy conjuring up fearful scenarios and playing them out in your mind’s eye. You’re jumping through hoop after hoop of scary thoughts, images, and frightening imagined consequences. This is not mindfulness. Instead, it’s the absence of mind, and this creates turbulence and anxiety.

The solution is to keep yourself engaged. I prefer the term “engaged” rather than “busy” because I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of the term “busy” as relating to hectic. A truly engaged mind is not hectic at all. For example, let’s say you’ve decided to do the dishes. You could easily say that you’re keeping yourself busy, but if you allow your mind to wander too far from the task, you’re not doing much to reduce anxiety. Instead, you’re just being anxious while doing the dishes. That isn’t the purpose at all. The purpose is to do the dishes and nothing but the dishes.

This is a tough practice because we’re all accustomed to letting our minds go wherever they will, so trying to reign this in and focus intently on one task is immensely difficult. But it gets easier with practice. We all have a lot of nonsense going on in our minds. The vast majority of it is a complete waste of energy. Just think about all of the junk that goes through your mind. For some people, this constant stream of trash can be comforting (although the vast majority of people don’t realize what they’re doing).

When people first develop chronic anxiety, one of the first things they want to do is go back to this stream of unconscious thinking. They want to stop thinking about anxiety or their symptoms and return to thinking about all the crap they used to think about. But what they often don’t realize is that the two are related: thinking about all of that crap is a major contributor to anxiety. So the fear becomes cyclical, in which our constant internal jabbering creates anxiety, while the anxiety creates the desire to jabber more… to “keep busy.”

What we need is not “busyness” of mind, but true engagement. For me, I like to have personal projects. Sometimes these are projects around the house: fixing a light fixture, cleaning out the garage. Other times they’re more impractical, like writing to this blog. Regardless of what my project is, whenever I’m working on it, my goal is to stay engaged, to be there while I’m working. Instead of letting my mind wander into the world of fear and fantasy, I turn my mind toward my task and try to focus on whatever it is I’m doing. If I’m installing a light switch, I dedicate all of my mind to the task. (Well, I try to.)

This creates stillness and reduces anxiety. By keeping yourself engaged in your daily life, you can go a long way in feeling more calm and more in control. At first, you’ll feel like you have to be thinking about other stuff, as if not thinking about those things will somehow cause you to neglect them. This isn’t true. You have plenty of time to daydream later, but once you dedicate yourself to a task, try to do it with all of your mind.

Anxiety disorders were once referred to as “housewife’s disease.” A housewife was traditionally someone who stayed at home and did repetitive tasks that offered very little in the way of intellectual stimulation. While housewives worked very hard (and they still do), hard work alone is not engaging. The engagement comes when one’s task requires the utmost attention and detail, and if the task is particularly boring (like washing dishes), then it becomes very difficult to stay with it. The more bored you feel, the more anxious you’ll feel. The confluence between “work” and “paying attention” is what I’m referring to as “engagement.”

It is possible that the dramatic increase in anxiety disorders in the Western world might have a strong connection to how lazy we’ve become, how disengaged we are with our lives, and how easy our daily lives are. Do you think you’d obsessively worry about having a heart attack if you had to worry about where your next meal was coming from? (I don’t think so.)

So, in short, I’m a firm believer that an engaged mind is a peaceful and healthy mind. The same goes for the body. When we don’t exercise, our bodies become weak and diseased. Staying engaged in your daily life is very important in overcoming anxiety. Always remember, however, that being engaged is not synonymous with being busy. Being busy offers no solace, but getting the job done provides an immsense source of joy and a feeling of accomplishment.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a few examples for ways to stay engaged. These examples are intended to be tasks in which you can totally dedicate yourself, whether it be for a few hours, or for an hour a day for the rest of your life.

  • Learn a new language.
  • Organize your closet.
  • Walking or Running.
  • Weight-lifting.
  • Martial arts.
  • Calisthenics.
  • Swimming.
  • Write a novel.
  • Paint your home.
  • Archery.
  • Grow a garden.
  • Yoga.
  • Meditation.
  • Tai Chi.
  • Painting (the artistic type).
  • Learn to play an instrument.
  • Scrapbooking.
  • Start a blog.
  • Photography.

Regardless of which tasks you choose to perform, remember that the purpose is not just to do these things, but to do them with a presence of mind; only then will you receive the full benefit of an engaged mind.