Values-Deficient Anxiety

Just a few months ago we had a thriving economy and nearly everyone was employed. And yet, prosperous times notwithstanding, more and more people were complaining about excessive anxiety in their lives. Many said, “If everything is so great, why am I still anxious about things? Something seems to be missing.”

There are always things missing from your life that could bring on anxiety, but I bet you never considered that failing to link your coping efforts to your personal values could be responsible. Think about your coping actions. Are they tied to your moral compass, your standards, your integrity? Most people say social conscience, empathy, and honor are important to them, but they fail to link these things to their coping actions. They don’t realize it, but that linkage failure is what is missing in their lives. The result? Anxiety, or more specifically, what I call Values-Deficient Anxiety (VDA).

Dr. Carlea Dries describes some linkage failures: “You put off investigating diets (an action), even though you say, ‘I care about my health’ (your value); you put off spending more time with your family (an action), even though you say, ‘I love and need my family’ (your value); you put off taking a course at the local college (an action), even though you say, ‘I want to become more educated’ (your value).”

Whenever you find yourself worried and anxious, consider the possibility that you may be experiencing VDA. To confront this type of anxiety you need to examine your focus in life. For instance, do you focus on things you are against – a politician, a religion, an ethnicity, a nationality? If so, consider redirecting your focus from what you are against to what you value. Then you can work at coordinating your values with actions compatible with those values.

Actions are essential to effective coping, but those actions must be grounded in a “life strategy,” which means your actions must serve your goals and ambitions in ways that complement your values. If you have not identified those values, your actions will not serve you in meaningful ways.

Think about it. If you believe you should instill personal accountability in your 18-year old, yet you allow him to take his pet dog to college for emotional support, are you linking your values to your permission? If you believe in financial responsibility, yet tell your college-graduate daughter that being delinquent on repaying her college loan is OK, are you linking your values to your comment? If you believe you should be honest with friends, but decide not to tell one of them you think she is being deceived by her romantic interest, are you linking your values to your silence? Unconsciously, such inconsistencies between values and actions can cause stress and Values-Deficient Anxiety (VDA).

To cope with VDA, consider three questions: (1) “What am I avoiding?” (2) “Do I make life all about me?” (3) “Am I willing to develop a coping action plan that focuses less on me and more on the welfare of others?” The idea here is not to struggle with answers to the questions, but to use the questions as paths to help you reflect on who you are, and to develop actions that can help you move forward.

Instead of focusing on the anxiety you feel, reflect on those three questions honestly. This reflection will help you identify what is important to you, and help you focus on actions dealing with those things. Remember, the idea is not to reflect on the anxiety you feel and how you wish you could get rid of it. How you feel is your reality, so don’t work to deny that reality.

Many people get hung up on question #3. They have a hard time accepting that focusing on – and empathizing with – others is possible and productive. In short, they feel inadequate to the task. Keep in mind, however, that the idea is not to bring a special set of skills to the table; the idea is to base your coping actions on values that give you a social conscience – a respectful and sincere focus on others, not yourself. This focus will help you feel more confident and empowered to venture outside yourself and act independently.

“But these actions…” you protest, “…where would I even begin with things to consider?” Well, you might examine your feelings about various social issues: mental health; children’s welfare; clean air and water; social, gender, and pay inequality; homelessness. No matter what the issue, getting involved in such areas can bring you a wealth of satisfaction and redirect your VDA in a more productive direction.

Even when the source of your anxiety is clear – such as the current pandemic – VDA can add to your misery. How are you coping in these troubled times? Are you sitting at home feeling helpless? Are there people you value whom you could call (video or audio call – no text, no email) and lend a reassuring voice and/or smile – human “contact” – to their coping efforts? Social isolation does not mean emotional isolation. Also, you could ask yourself, “Are there community support programs that fit my social conscience that I could support?

To cope with the stress of stay-at-home, and the worry about infection, in addition to maintaining your vigilance about hand-washing and other protective measures, take time now and then to accept your anxiety as a normal reaction to reality, and to reflect quietly on your values. Don’t bother to write them down; let them emerge from positive introspection about who you are and the role you can play in the human enterprise.

Reflection on personal values is a type of mindfulness, the ability to be aware of who you are and what you’re doing, and how you can expand what you do for others. Your focus is not self-criticism, or judgment. The focus is on finding ways to express yourself in ways that benefit others.

Here’s the coping message: Whenever anxiety threatens to take hold of you, examine your values and then identify realistic actions you can take to complement those values. You will feel better – more confident, satisfied, and empowered to channel your anxiety into areas of your life in ways that give you some control over your actions.

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