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#63: The Anxiety Mindsweep

Bob Ewing
April 8, 2022
a cartoon drawing of two people standing in front of an elephant

Talking Big Ideas.

“Hiding under the bed doesn’t make the worry stop.”
~ Cynthia Voigt

I was riding shotgun as we drove down the highway.

Just me and my dad. I was young, maybe ten. We were listening to the radio and talking. He posed a thought experiment: “Imagine the car started making a weird noise right now. Would we fix the problem by turning the radio up so loud we couldn’t hear the noise anymore?”

I laughed and said no.

“Exactly. The same is true with the things that bother us. Hiding doesn’t make them go away.”

A decade later I was sitting in class. The professor posed a similar thought experiment: “Imagine there’s a big hurricane that slams Florida. People panic. The price of gasoline and bottled water skyrocket in the affected areas. Should the price gougers be punished?”

Someone from the front raised their hand: “Of course! They’re preying on people who are hurting.” Another student disagreed. She argued that the situation encourages people from other states who sell gas and water to send their supplies to Florida.

The professor smiled.

The high prices are like a giant blinking light, he said. They grab the attention of anyone who sells gas and water. And gets them to act immediately. To rush their goods down to Florida. Which ensures the shortage is quickly fixed.

High prices aren’t the problem, the professor assured us. The sudden shortage of essential goods is the problem. If raising prices were outlawed, the true problem would be hidden. Gas and water would take longer to arrive in Florida. People would suffer needlessly.

Anxiety is like the giant blinking light. And the noise in the car.

It’s not the actual problem. Rather, anxiety brings awareness to things that need fixing. But do we allow anxiety to properly focus our attention? Or do we hide and suffer needlessly?

The world is facing epidemic levels of anxiety. This has been going on much longer than the pandemic.

Without tackling anxiety head-on, it can become paralyzing.

The author Charlotte Lieberman says that anxiety often becomes a vicious cycle. But, she writes in Harvard Business Review, “if we listen to our anxiety — rather than try to shut it up — we give ourselves an opening to break the vicious cycle.” By focusing our attention, we can understand the causes of our anxiety and begin to address them.

Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to sit down and write.

Ethan Kross is one of the world’s leading experts on how our minds work. In his book Chatter, he explains that “getting the anxieties out of our head and onto the paper makes us feel better, visit the doctor less, and have a healthier immune function.”

Decades of research by psychologist James Pennebaker show that physical health and work performance improve when we write down our anxieties. “By writing, you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings,” he explains. “It helps you to get past them.”

My favorite way to do this is with a mind sweep.

Maryrose and I like to mind sweep together. On Wednesday, we sat down at the table, set a timer for 15 minutes, and captured all the thoughts that popped up in our heads. We wrote each idea on its own little piece of paper.

Here’s a picture of our kitchen table after we finished:

Blue is for everything that’s giving us anxiety. Green is for everything making us excited.

Some problems we unearthed are unsolvable. But we found that most are within our control.

After we finished writing, we selected our most anxiety-inducing problems and discussed them together. We came up with small action items for each.

Sweeping helps get all of the worries out of our heads and into the open. Once we see them on the table and talk about them they feel manageable. And working together to clarify next actions turns problems into progress.

As George Nordenholt said:

No matter how big and tough a problem may be, get rid of confusion by taking one little step toward solution. Do something.



Anxiety is a giant blinking light worthy of attention.

Set a timer for five minutes right now. Ask yourself: what’s causing me anxiety? See how many thoughts you can pull out of your head.

Can you create small action items for any of them?


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