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Learning to Slow Down and Say No When Anxiety Hits



William McKenna, M.S. - published on 04/20/16

Your worth and value are not based on how much you do

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Question: I am constantly overwhelmed with the amount of responsibilities and activities going on in my life. I feel like my anxiety is getting worse and worse and I can’t seem to relax or slow down.  How do I cope with the busyness of life when it is so hard to say no?

William McKenna, MS; Clinical Psychology Extern at Catholic Charities:

This problem with being too busy is, believe it or not, one of the most common problems in American life. When I was in college, I also had this problem and it became almost unbearable. One day I ran into a priest on campus, and he asked how I was doing. I told him about my anxiety over being so busy. He simply responded with the following: “Why have you chosen to become so busy?” I could not believe his answer! I didn’t feel that being busy was a choice on my part! But then I thought about it and realized he was right, I had chosen to become busy.

Every extracurricular activity, every invitation I had agreed to, all of what I was doing was my choice. I realized my vocation at that time was to be a college student, and I did not have to be involved in a million other extracurricular activities. Indeed, those extra things were ultimately causing me anxiety by putting more noise into my life, preventing me from having silence and time for reflection and self-care.

Now, I am not claiming that we should not engage in some activities outside of our work. Leisure is incredibly important for mental health and societal well-being. Activities that provide social outlets as well as time to “recharge” are helpful in keeping a person well-rounded and can even be a wonderful chances to grow in virtue. The problem arises when those things become sources of anxiety rather than sources of joy and relaxation.

The heart of the predicament that you are now suffering is connected not just with the choice to become busy but also with the belief that saying no to others will negatively affect your relationship with them, your self-image or both. At the core of the need to be busy is the belief that without some work or occupation, we lose our value both to others and to ourselves. When we believe this, our self-worth becomes directly tied to how much we accomplish or do and how well we do it.

One possible solution to this belief is to remind yourself that your worth and value are not based on how much you do. If you feel that a certain activity or commitment is causing you unnecessary distress or anxiety, drop it! It will probably be hard. No one wants to appear flaky or uncommitted, but it’s way better than developing anxiety or a stomach ulcer because of it. If those changes do not give you the relief you are looking for, then I would recommend going to see a therapist to work on your deeper and more personal reasons for desiring to be so busy. Finally, remember that your ultimate dignity and worth come from Christ, and no matter what you do or what other people think of you, his love for you will never change.

William McKenna, MS,is a clinical extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services. The Institute for the Psychological Sciences offers graduates programs in psychology, both online and onsite in the greater Washington DC area. Visit for more information.

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