I Can’t Get No Satisfaction


Image of person walking along a beach. Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, Katherine Broadway

Shirley can't seem to get her housework done. Every day and every weekend, she makes it her goal to spend time straightening her house. Somehow, she never gets started.

After retirement, Larry plans to go through boxes and organize his home office. Two years later, the boxes remain unpacked.

What do these people have in common? Anxiety.

The Default Network

Studies show that humans have a default network in their brain. This network is the home of the fight/flight instinct. This part of our brains waits for the danger to happen, for the saber tooth tiger to appear. It is connected with the medulla, the

primitive brain. It is the oldest part of the brain that has not evolved beyond instinct. This is the area that is responsible for multiple autonomic (involuntary) functions.

The flight/fight response is instinctual and unconscious; therefore, it is always prepared to act in a way that would defend and protect us. The brain is just as active at rest as when we are involved in a complicated task.

When we are relaxed the default network is active. When you stop moving, working, or socializing and it is time to focus on an unpleasant task, a restlessness settles in.

When Shirley and Larry begin to think about the task that needs to be done, they become restless and distracted, at times unable to focus. The medulla becomes excited and activates the flight response. They think about smaller tasks that are far more interesting and less involved, or suddenly realize there is an errand to run.

In the blink of an eye, they leave the part of themselves that wants to finish the task and move into a part of themselves that does not feel that anxiety. It happens so quickly that they do not even notice that they are somewhere they had not planned on going. The task is left undone, and the project is untouched.

At the end of the time they set aside, both Shirley and Larry are left wondering what happened and why they have accomplished nothing. The Harsh Inner Critic stands at the ready to explain what has happened. It heightens the anxiety using criticisms and directives, reinforcing the need to not be still and not feel. The cycle continues without their awareness.

Finding a Solution

Larry’s solution is to feel bad, be confused, and work harder on a different task. This does not work either. It only distracts from the real problem: anxiety. Shirley’s solution is to tell that to get a life and take a drink. This is a common solution to the problem. Unfortunately, it only reinforces the anxiety and gives the critical voices more ammunition.

What is the solution? You must address the anxiety and take care of it. You do this by being present to yourself and noticing what you are thinking and feeling. Pay attention to your senses, what you hear, and what you smell. Feel the beat of your heart, the sensations on your skin, notice your breath as it goes in and out.

When you plan your day or a task, take 3 mindful breaths. Breathe in slowly to a count of 5, and breathe out slowly to a count of 5. If you hear messages from the Harsh Inner Critic, reassure yourself that the messages are not true. Remind yourself that this is a task that you want or need to do and that you can take it at your own pace.

Having trouble calming your self and being able to do those important tasks? Call me. I can help you learn how to be calm and move forward.