This is One Overlooked Root Cause of Anxiety

by | Aug 16, 2020 | Anxiety | 54 comments

There is a saying that goes, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” If we understand the “devil” as the aspect of our minds that is rooted in fear and prone to anxiety, this saying makes sense, especially for highly sensitive people who are also deeply thinking and need their minds to be engaged as much as the heart needs to be nurtured. When the mind is too idle, empty or bored, anxiety is more likely to take root. Let’s flesh this out.

As highly sensitive people, we are not only deeply feeling but we are also highly analytical. Those on the sensitive-anxious-creative spectrum almost always describe themselves as “over-thinkers.”

The tendency to “over-think” often arises both as a defense against big and deep feelings – it’s safer to travel into the realm of thoughts and “lean to the left”, as Daniel Siegel teaches – than it is to feel the enormity and messiness of emotions, especially if, as a child, you didn’t have anyone to hold and guide you through the terrain of emotions (most kids didn’t).

You’ve also likely been told that “you think too much” by well-meaning parents, teachers, partners, and friends who didn’t (and still don’t) know what to do with the places where your mind wandered. The thoughts of a highly sensitive child-then adult are often far-reaching and brilliant: kids as young as five pondering death; slightly older kids wondering about the meaning of life and the size of the universe (does it ever end?); teens reading about the afterlife and why we’re all here. Telling a sensitive person “you think too much” isn’t helpful as it denies the scope of the deeply-thinking person’s mind.

For thinking isn’t only a defense; it’s also a basic human need. Our minds need to be engaged and stimulated. They need to sink into ideas that light them up and encourage them to wander into interesting territory. We talk a lot about “quieting the mind” in spiritual circles – which is an important skill to learn – but our minds are extraordinary tools for creativity, learning, and innovation when they’re given the right attention.

When a child’s voracious need to understand the world and the universe is supported, the far-reaching questions that arise both from the anxious mind and the creative mind can be satisfied. When one of my sons (both of whom are highly sensitive) was younger he was terrified by the thought that when we die we disappear into nothingness. As many of my clients have shared similar thoughts with me, I know that this is a common question for the highly sensitive child.

We spent many months talking about what happens when you die. I shared my beliefs, but “belief” wasn’t enough for him; he wanted evidence. Every night at bedtime (nighttime is when the fears are unleashed), his sensitive-anxious-creative mind wandered into this territory, wondering and worrying himself into an anxious tizzy. I held him. We talked. We wondered together. We discussed the topic as as family. But still his scientific brain demanded evidence.

I wasn’t quite sure how to provide him with evidence until I remembered a book I had read years earlier called “Dying to be Me” by Anita Moorjani where she shares the compelling story of her journey through cancer and into the afterlife. As her nearly instantaneous healing was documented by doctors, this sufficed my son’s need for evidence, and from the moment he read the book his questions were answered and he was able to move on. He was about eight years old at the time.

All of this to say, we talk a lot about the emotional sensitivity of the highly sensitive person, but there is much less discussion about the high need for mental stimulation. Many highly sensitive people are also highly gifted people, meaning that their need to be challenged intellectually is as important to their overall well-being as learning how to take care of their sensitized physical bodies and attend to their sensitive hearts. Left to wander around in an under-stimulated mind, as often happens in most learning environments, anxiety can easily take hold.

 

What does all of this mean in simple language? It means that boredom is one root cause of anxiety.

 

I’ve seen an upsurge in anxiety during this time of quarantine for a myriad of reasons, and one of these is due to the fact that many of our typical ways of engagement have been taken away. Left alone in our homes without access to some aspects of stimulation, the active mind that needs healthy stimulation the way our bodies need healthy food is more prone to slip into anxious territory. In the absence of healthy stimulation, it seeks out unhealthy stimulation.

I remember one time my son said to me, “One of the reasons I can’t fall asleep at night is because my brain is bored. When my brain is busy all day long – like when we travel – I fall asleep quickly.” When he’s bored, he can’t sleep, and that’s also often when his mind travels into unhelpful territory as he tries to answer unanswerable questions in the dark of night. It’s like people who have restless legs because they haven’t exercised enough. When we don’t exercise the brain, it’s not happy. But when his brain is engaged, challenged, and stimulated, thus receiving the nutrients it needs for well-being, he falls asleep just fine.

Now we have to be careful here that we don’t stay busy and fill our brains as a way to avoid the emotional realm. We all need downtime where we can slow down into the realm of the heart and body, and it’s easy in our culture to move quickly as a way to distract from the messiness and vulnerability of emotions. Intellectually gifted people may be more prone to relying on their mental capacities as a way to avoid the heart than someone with more kinesthetic or musical gifts, for example, as the intellectually gifted are not immediately invited into the realm of body and heart through their pursuits, passions and professions. This awareness can help them notice when they’re using their minds as a way to avoid or as a way to learn, innovate, and create.

But with the plethora of meaningless ways that we’re prone to engage these days – primarily Netflix, YouTube, the news, and social media – it’s terribly easy to feed the mind these empty foods and then wonder why you’re feeling anxious. It would be like eating donuts all day long and then wondering why you feel so awful in your body. Our minds are designed to learn, to ponder, to expand, to innovate, to create. Our screens can be used to these positive ends as well, but it requires more effort.

Because of the internet, the world of learning is at our fingertips. You can learn a new language. You can delve into your ancestral lineage and read folkloric stories. You can learn how to garden and then plant one. But all-too-often we default into the path of least resistance with our screens and find ourselves wiling away hours through meaningless engagement.

As always in life, we have a choice, the fundamental choice of free will: How do you choose to spend your time? How do you choose to engage your mind? When is the last time you exhausted your brain by allowing it to sink into a challenging intellectual pursuit? And, most importantly, what nourishes your brain? What you can name, you can change. I’d love to hear about what nourishes your brain in the comments below. I’ve listed a few ideas in the Instagram post below:

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54 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this. I am a professional poet and have found my solace in writing during the lockdown. I see it as my duty, as a writer, to chronicle this strange time we are moving through.

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    • I look forward to reading what you’ve chronicled.

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        • Painful and beautiful, Joshua. Thank you for sharing it with us. x

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          • interested in your thoughts on a comment I left on one of your instagram posts:

            There is a paradox at the heart of the scientific OCD literature. On the one hand, it says that coping with uncertainty is the key to recovering from OCD, but on the other hand it refuses to sanction uncertainty about its own ‘scientific’ methods. This is maddening when the focus of my intrusive thoughts centre around the modality of the (wonderful) therapy I receiving.

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            • That’s fascinating, Joshua, and a very astute observation. Are you saying that when the OCD literature claims that this is the only scientific method for managing OCD it’s paradoxically refusing to acknowledge the limitations in the modality itself?

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              • yes I am saying that does seem to be the case. There is a lack of humility and in some cases an outright dogmatism. That said, one can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I do try to incorporate some CBT techniques into my life, to go alongside my analysis.

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                • No doubt that CBT offers some very helpful techniques. Their insistence on being the “gold standard” is connected to insurance and is, indeed, problematic, but that’s a whole other conversation. Are you in Jungian analysis?

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                  • To be honest I’m not sure if it’s ‘Jungian’, I don’t know enough about that. But she’s a very well-regarded analyst that I see three times a week. She has been with me through my relationship, my wedding, buying my first property, and multiple other transitions. I find her level of insight to be genius, at times. But my current intrusive thought is ‘should I leave this relationship and go and do the ‘gold standard’ that the OCD literature recommends?’ As I say, it’s maddening

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        • Thank you for these inspiring words, so helpful and huge food for thought. My son is 6 and much of this piece applies to him. I love, listen, talk with him, and let him express his thoughts without judgement, but can I do more? We are on the brink of moving house and I recognise this is causing me great anxiety because it may not happen, also I have been agonising over our choice of area to move to and if it’s the right decision etc. So many questions, what ifs and uncertainty that is causing me unrest.
          Thank you for your words – I love reading them.

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        • Thank you Joshua. You made a little crack my armor today. I am grateful.

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          • interested in your thoughts on a comment I left on one of your instagram posts:

            There is a paradox at the heart of the scientific OCD literature. On the one hand, it says that coping with uncertainty is the key to recovering from OCD, but on the other hand it refuses to sanction uncertainty about its own ‘scientific’ methods. This is maddening when the focus of my intrusive thoughts centre around the modality of the (wonderful) therapy I receiving.

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    • Loved this post and definitely struggle with staying in my head as a way to avoid feeling big feelings. It’s actually really hard for me because I love this work SO much that I get stuck on different healing modalities and which one is the “right” one to do in different moments. It’s a really hard balance for me as well because I love to learn but tend to over stimulate myself with so much info and not enough time to process and follow through with it. Hopefully, other highly sensitive people can relate to this! Thank you, Sheryl!

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  2. Thank you so much for this post. I had the same experience as your son when I was 4 year old. I am 21 now and for a long time I have used excessive distractive thinking to avoid going into the depths of feelings to a point where I am addicted to social media chaos. I oscillate between the anxiety of wanting to do it all to nourish, challenge myself, to avoid boredom and then getting stuck in the boredom so much that trying to engage myself can be nauseating. Recently I have been wondering on if there’s something deeper to boredom and would really like and appreciate if you had some insight on it.

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  3. Wow! What an awesome post! As an HSP, as many of us are, I know I’ll look to this article again and again when I find myself down an anxious rabbit hole! Thank you as always!

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  4. I often wonder if my intense anxiety stemming from boredom is a sign that I am still far from being able to sit with my emotions. This post clarified the subtle difference for me between the anxiety and the need to do — to create as a function of my high sensitivity as opposed to my attempts to numb out of my feelings by getting busy and distracted to avoid feeling raw pain. I am happy to feel the truth of the difference between these two states of being.

    As I am on the brink of starting my last year of nursing school, I can feel my soul perking up and longing to learn and engage my brain again. I am also facing the transition of summer ending and my husband and I being apart much more. Trying to bring love and compassion to the grief I am feeling without letting it morph into blame and the need to control.

    Dropping into the waves and surrendering

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    • I hear so much self-compassion and wisdom in your comment. Thank you.

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  5. This is definitely true for me! I am happiest when I am busy and my brain is engaged. Being home all the time for the last few months has been challenging for me in that respect, so I signed up for classes this fall to keep my mind more occupied.

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    • Great move, Lucy. There are many ways we can stay engaged during this time but we have to make more effort to find them.

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  6. Thank you so much for this Sheryl. Your posts always come to me at the right time, like the universe sending me a sign. I love to write as a creative outlet but I can get stuck in a rut by over analysing my writing and ending up becoming critical of myself. Actually most of my creative outlets cause anxiety these days due to the same reason. I’m inspired to keep trying though as when I can engage my mind without critical thoughts it definitely energies me!

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    • Also consider the creativity is different from learning: creativity is expression (inside-out) and learning is absorption (outside-in). The critic tends to pipe down when we’re in absorption/learning so perhaps focus your attention there for a while as you’re learning to attend to the critic in more effective ways.

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    • This critical voice happens to me too when I write. I turned it into learning rather than creativity with a weekly online writing course (I recommend city lit if you’re in the UK) this summer and I really enjoyed it!

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  7. Wow I can so relate to this! I’m currently unemployed and far from home and my mind tends to gravitate to climate change. If I focus on studying Spanish, doing yoga and writing my blog I feel much better. I also like to learn about solutions to climate change but this is a a fine line and I can only do it when I’m in a good place or it spirals into seeking reassurance and rumination.

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  8. Wonderful post! Thank you so much for this. Thought-provoking, especially as I parent my highly sensitive son through this pandemic when being home all the time means his mind is often less stimulated than it ordinarily is.

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    • Yes, exactly the challenge we have found with our two sons.

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  9. I love this. Thank you so much. I really relate to your son, as in there are times when I’m so intellectually stimulated that I am able to relax and rest easily. And the opposite is true when I am bored. Though, sometimes I get overstimulated and just want to get to work on all these puzzles and studies and everything else, and then I don’t sleep much either because I wake up halfway through the night ready to go, only I need more rest. For me it is about balance, and learning when I need to just quiet the mind and BE rather than DO. But definitely when I am under-stimulated mentally, I tend to get anxious and very depressed.

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    • Yes, it’s a tricky and delicate dance between over- and under-stimulation.

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  10. I’ve found a daily meditation helps keep me exploring and investigating my work and my world, rather than picking and pulling it apart!

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  11. Hi Sheryl! So in regards to your Open Your Heart Course does it teach you to accept boredom in your relationship? He is the most wonderful man and I love his heart but sometimes I worry that I’ve been too bored for too long for it to be relationship anxiety which terrifies me as I want nothing more than to stay…..in afraid our relationship isn’t fun enough and I’ll have to leave because his heart and soul aren’t enough of a good reason to stay….I love your work and am ready to think about taking the next step…..your advice would be greatly appreciated!!

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    • You are responsible for your aliveness and fun!

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      • So you don’t think it’s a sign to leave, his heart is all the reason enough to stay!

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  12. Practicing art, meditating, journalling, and reading (for pleasure, for school and for self-help reasons) all are things I do to nourish my brain. I think exercising helps a lot too, even though it’s mostly physical I find so many positive mental effects when I’m able to drop into my body and let my mind rest or drift.

    Definitely agree with what you have written here. I can feel myself being so bored and isolated lately and it’s taking such a toll on my mental health. I have to make a conscious effort to keep on top of my mood. Sometimes even despite my best efforts it’s not possible, but the effort is still worth it.

    My newest habit that I have been working on lately is avoiding social media for the first few hours of my morning. So far I have been doing okay on that, and I plan to restrict my usage even more and find other things to do with the time I would usually waste mindlessly scrolling.

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    • Spending the first few hours of the day away from screens is one of the most nourishing actions we can take.

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  13. Can the opposite be true, too? As I am investigating my anxieties, I am wondering if perhaps over stimulation is a part of it. My mom and I were just having a conversation about this the other day. She was talking about how I was always drawn to the water, and every time we went to Hawaii, you couldn’t get me out of it. Then when our family went through the wildfires in California in 2017, when we went back to Hawaii, she noticed I didn’t flock to the water. I noticed that cold water felt even colder, like I couldn’t tolerate it. It got even worse after we were in the middle of a big earthquake. I’ve just wondered if I got into a bit of sensory overload.

    And on that note, because it relates, I’ve been reading about the definitions and traits of empaths (my acupuncturist has referred to me as one multiple times), but I wasn’t sure I met all of the traits. I mean, I have always been sensitive to wool, not in an allergic way but just as an irritant, and I’m definitely highly emotionally sensitive. I just wonder, is it possible to be an Empath without meeting all the “requirements.” For that matter, is it possible for an Empath to “shut down” if they are overwhelmed? And how do you combat that?

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    • Hey Riley!

      Just a thought from a fellow empath, but I’d venture to suggest that “stimulation” and what Sheryl means by “boredom” in this context are not mutually exclusive. Some of the times I have felt most overwhelmed have been times when my body or mind are in a “receiving” state, when they are taking on sensations and thoughts and images and judgements, usually through various digital media outlets, and that state often results from a lack of engagement on my part. It’s as though since my creative/emotional brain has nothing to say, I’m much more vulnerable to absorbing too much stimulation, if that makes any sense :).

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  14. This makes so much sense, Sheryl! And it puts a new frame around an experience I had a few months ago, at the beginning of shelter-in-place. I started reading one hour a day (I previously read intermittently, not that much), and my mental and emotional help went way up. Now I read 1 hour a day for 3 days a week, and I also joined a career group that is 1 hour a week. This stimulation really does inspire me, and the challenge and fresh energy of what I’m reading/learning helps me focus my energy on creating positive things (like starting to tutor students online!), rather than ruminating on tiny details that don’t have much impact on me or the world.

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    • YES! This is exactly what I’m talking about: using our energy for service and engagement.

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  15. mental and emotional health* went way up

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  16. This is exactly why I lobby so hard for the inclusion of the creative arts and hand skills in education. An old teacher of mine used to say that the developing mind (and as it turns out, we’re still developing, even well into old age!) needs twice as much output (engagement) as input (consumption). What I’ve found myself is that as a HSP and creative person, it is actually nearly impossible for me to consume media without my brain trying to reach out. And when it can’t find anything to grab onto in what I’m consuming, it begins to ruminate, creating footholds within the void by WORRYING. However, in contrast I’ve found that a good “old fashioned” dose of boredom (no screens, no noise, no chatter) to be quite inspiring to me—some of my best art has come from moments of deep, slow stillness. But as far as the kind of boredom that comes from excess, mindless consumption goes….you’re absolutely right, we have to watch out for that!

    Thanks again, Sheryl!

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    • Beautifully expressed, Niamh. Thank you.

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  17. Thankful for reasoning about this.
    Having no time boundaries during this pandemic, over working, doing, thinking is a big reality.
    Overworking avoids overthinking, but overthinking comes easily again, having so much time and feeling like floating on the sea.
    My thoughts go together with an arising anxiety sometimes: I feel I need to be reinforced in my reality. We cannot making programs, deciding when doing things, in my case deciding to see each other, living in two different continents….I’m feeling a little lost and my partner the same. Over working from home is for him the way to keep control on the reality.

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    • It’s a very challenging time. Sending love.

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  18. Oh wow. This post is challenging some long-held shame in me. For being “unfocused” and “flighty”. Reading several books at a time and juggling multiple creative projects, I am at my best. In a sweet spot of stimulation that feels very right to me.

    I often feel like a hummingbird, landing and sipping briefly on many flowers many times a day.

    I fear I’m not alone though in sharing that others don’t often see the wisdom in this. So many times I have heard “pick one thing and stick with it”. I have tried. And was bored and God yes, so anxious. This post helps me understand why that never works for me. And to feel less shame about that.

    I’m curious Sheryl…any thoughts on choosing a career path for those with these tendencies? I myself have had a hard time with this, as my interests, talents and skills are so diverse. Making one choice and sticking with it feels like I’m sacrificing another pathway I also love. But it’s hard to make headway in a career when you’re jumping from thing to thing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thanks!

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  19. As someone who has discovered themselves as a highly sensitive person through your blog, I feel very grateful reading this! Your blog has helped me discover that my feelings don’t have to decide my life for me! I’ve struggled with feeling “right” in my relationship, and knowing that I should make my decisions based on his essence and not my feelings has brought me so much relief! As always, thank you so much!

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  20. Such an appropriate topic!

    To get me through this extremely challenging time, I have sorted out my husband’s family photos – I don’t think I’ve been easy to live with this year, so it’s a way of showing him love and amusing myself too.
    Also, as I know that we can get out of our own way by helping others, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to a family member whose daughter is very ill with anorexia.

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  21. Great article! The problem I have is that when I work on something which is engaging my mind, I cannot shift into normal life later.

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  22. Also, when I’m very excited about some of my ideas, I get disconnected from my partner, family etc. Then I feel like I don’t need them and they are boring. I don’t know where is it coming from….. Do you have any idea Sheryl?

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