We all know truly passionate people in our lives. They’re the ones who fully embrace their calling, vocation, or dream and pursue it daily with a mixture of enthusiasm and discipline. There’s the all-star athlete who balances a rigorous training, practice, and game schedule. Or the food blogger who carves out time late after the kids have gone to bed to dive into recipe preparation, writing, and photo editing. And there’s the activist who’s passionate about helping others and logs long hours at a homeless shelter after a full day at the office.
When we’re passionate about an activity, cause, or talent, we’ll do whatever it takes to devote ourselves fully to it, which is exactly why the admirable work of pursuing our passions can slowly ramp up symptoms of anxiety.
We only have 24 hours in each day to pack in a host of demands related to work, relationships, and home life. The pace of life is increasing, but the reality is, there’s only so much time to fit it all in. When going after your passions, you have to weave in extra commitments amid other priorities, but that means something else must drop off. If it doesn’t, life quickly becomes out of balance, increasing feelings of stress and ultimately, anxiety.
In Randi Zuckerberg’s book, Pick Three, she advocates for choosing three focus areas for a single day from this list of five: work, sleep, family, friends, and fitness. There are many other time management theories, so do your research and choose one that lets you pursue your passions without chipping away at your mental health.
When taking risks and striving toward our goals, it’s tempting to feel the weight of other’s opinions and expectations. But sometimes, our harshest critic — and biggest enemy — is ourselves. We’re not born feeling inadequate, but many worry that they’re just not good enough. When we place high expectations on ourselves, we can start a “spin cycle of anxiety” that starts with feeling inadequate, that things are out of control, and that you can’t handle them. You may also experience stomach aches, chest tightness, shortness of breath, nausea, or panic.
War against high expectations when chasing after your passions by setting realistic, SMART goals with attainable benchmarks that allow you to step back and celebrate your accomplishments. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Strongly identifying with your passion and internalizing this as who you are — like a writer, marathon runner, or Fortune 500 executive — creates even more pressure as you work to live up to that standard. Virginia-based Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, notes that while most people envision rising to the top of the field they’re passionate about, only a select few can successfully manage the anxiety that comes along with it.
“The more challenges and negative thoughts we experience, the more difficult it can be to get to the top without feeling anxious,” Catchings said. “Fear of failure, not wanting to leave our comfort zone, or being a perfectionist can create this anxiety.”
Seeing yourself holistically, beyond your token passion, can help create other opportunities for fulfillment. Beyond a marathon runner, you may also be a wellness coach, son or daughter, or another role that you excel at.
A recipe for burnout
On the path to our passions, where we continuously push ourselves physically and emotionally, there’s an increased risk of burnout and stress. The brain, just like a muscle, can lose its strength from extreme exhaustion and overwork, which paves the way for a host of mental health challenges, including anxiety. Health professionals are beginning to recognize the impact of chronic stress, with some even comparing burnout to diseases like diabetes.
Catchings recommends creating a detailed plan of action to effectively handle the emotions that arise with our passions and the associated feelings of stress and anxiety.
“Keep a journal to avoid bottling our emotions and also to see a clear picture of our accomplishments and the things we need to work on, deep breathing exercises or meditation to lower the anxiety, mindfulness to recognize our emotions and be able to process them as needed, and looking for professional help either by seeing a therapist in person or online,” she said.
Pursuing your passions doesn’t have to come with a barrage of anxiety or stress. Create checks and balances to effectively manage your schedule and more importantly, your mental health, to keep you on track for living out your dreams.