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Not too long ago, I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling anxious. I was thinking about a work project that was due in a couple of weeks. I was nervous about it, and it was on my mind as I tried to get back to sleep. Unfortunately, the “getting back to sleep” part didn’t go so well, and I was up for about an hour before I finally fell asleep again.

Anxiety is a weird thing. It’s based in the emotion of fear, which can be adaptive. (If there is a bear chasing you, it’s good to be on high alert and get the heck out of there.) Even with my work project, a certain level of anxiety is adaptive. If I felt zero anxiety, I probably wouldn’t prepare very much, and I might do a bad job on the project.

But too much anxiety is problematic as well. The other night, I was feeling too much anxiety. It wouldn’t be helpful for me to get up in the middle of the night and work—I needed to sleep. But the anxiety was still there. I couldn’t get rid of it.

Sometimes it’s tough to just “will yourself” to relax. I tried to do that, but the work project was still there. I hadn’t completed it yet, or checked it off my list. In the middle of the night, there was no way I could clear the project off my plate.

In situations like these, it has been helpful for me to put the idea on a shelf. Whatever you are anxious about, think about it like a book you are reading, but you don’t have time to finish it right now. You put the book on your shelf, with a commitment to get to it at a later time. You can do a similar thing with an anxious thought. Take the thought and put it on a shelf. You can’t do anything about it right now, but you are making a commitment to get to it at a later time (such as the next day).

In addition to putting the idea on a shelf in your mind, it is helpful to write it down. There is something about actually writing it down that makes putting the idea on a shelf tangible. You can get the thought out of your head, on to the paper, and leave it there. You aren’t avoiding the thought—you are committing to deal with the thought at a later time. The paper is a tangible reminder of your commitment, and this can help you relax in the present moment.

Next time you are feeling anxious about something (and can’t deal with it right now), put the idea on a shelf. Write it down, and make a commitment to deal with it at a later date. See if this process helps you relax in the moment.

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