The most valuable ability of humans—what separates us from other species—is our ability to predict the future. To anticipate the repercussions of our actions. To imagine potential consequences. To plan for the future. Prediction is what makes humans more intelligent and thereby more successful at survival than other animals. Likewise those humans who are best at prediction are more successful in life than their fellow humans.
When you don’t use your prediction ability and act before thinking, bad things tend to happen. Most criminals are criminals because they don’t think before they act. They see money and take it without recognizing they’ll be arrested later. Or they get angry and hit someone without realizing the repercussions of violence.
To lose the ability to imagine the future and predict all possible negative scenarios would be terrible. But that’s essentially what anxiety is: thinking of all the potential negative repercussions of a given action in the future.
Those who suffer from anxiety are those who think more than others—which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually often a good thing. You see more of the potential negative outcomes of the future. The problem is when you become overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible negative outcomes, so much so that it prevents you from doing anything in the present.
In the case of social anxiety, let’s say you’re a guy who likes a girl and wants to ask her out on a date. But then you start to think of the potential outcomes: “She may already have a boyfriend. She may think I’m ugly. She may laugh in my face. She may be freaked out and think I’m some weird stalker,” etcetera. And the thing is, these are all possible outcomes, however unlikely. So you figure the hell with it, it’s not worth the risk. You won’t ask her out. You’ll just wait for her to ask you out. But she may never do so.
Future prediction is the most valuable human trait. Those who best predict the future will start the most successful businesses and win at the stock market. They will be more creative and make better art. Prediction can also help you be a more loving friend and family member because you are more considerate, thinking about how your words and actions will affect them. So you try to be the best friend and family member you can be. Accurately predicting the future is the key to success in all facets of life.
But there is a downside to everything. Anxiety is a side effect of your future-predicting ability. Anxiety comes from focusing too much on the negative possibilities of the future, which may not ever come to fruition, and/or placing too much emphasis on the negative possibilities should they take place.
Back to the example of a guy with social anxiety. Sure, it’s possible the girl could laugh in your face if you ask her out. But that’s probably unlikely. Even if she does laugh in your face, so what? One girl rejected you. Who cares? If she’s the kind of person who would laugh in another person’s face like that, you wouldn’t want to date her anyway, so it would be a blessing in disguise to be rejected.
This is all to say that anxiety, social or otherwise, is not something you want to lose or get rid of entirely. Anxiety is something you want to harness and learn to control. Listen when your anxiety (or predictive ability) is helpful, and ignore it when it’s not. Mindfulness is the key to doing that because it makes you conscious of your thoughts. You won’t get rid of negative thoughts completely, but you can learn how to ignore them when warranted.
The goal to overcoming anxiety isn’t to take some pill so you never feel anxious anymore. You want to feel anxiety…sometimes. The goal is to feel anxiety but learn to ignore it selectively. You can’t take a magic pill that will know when the right and wrong times to feel anxious are; you need to train your brain to recognize that yourself.
If you suffer from anxiety, congratulations. You’re probably an intelligent person. So don’t let your intelligence become clouded by anxiety. Become more mindful and use your predictive superpower for good.