Anxiety: the sanity gap

The reason views are beautiful, is that we see everything at once, but are threatened by nothing. Photo by Félix Lam on Unsplash


In all difficult situations, we are put under pressure.  Life seems urgent, and we become convinced that whatever-it-is needs to be sorted now.  We become like an engine working itself to pieces without a rest.  There is no oil between the parts, and our mind starts to grind on and on at the same old problems, trying to solve them on less and less energy.  Eventually, we collapse in a heap, and the situation either blows up, or we stop functioning.

Welcome to the world of the anxious person, where energy is used up analysing the same unresolved issues again and again, without rest.


Where the energy is used up externally, the anxious person is experienced as either confrontational or needy.  Where the anxiety converts to aggression, then it’s labelled confrontational.  Where the anxiety converts to sucking time and comfort from others, then it’s labelled needy.

Where the energy is used up internally, we confront ourselves and give ourselves a hard time; or else we reconstruct the world in a paranoid and hypersensitive manner, but are afraid to talk to anyone.  Our insides become a seething mass of worries in a hostile-seeming world – though no one looking at us would guess what’s going on inside.


What all these anxious reactions have in common is that they make life urgent, so that nothing can wait.  There is no gap between reality and our response.  The world feels hostile and difficult, and that’s it.  The engine of our mind cannot rest.  There is no oil to soothe the system, no comfort.  If one thing more happens, it feels like another punch in the stomach, as our resilience has got so low.


What is needed in anxious situations, is time away from the problem.  Our minds need to be separated from the urgency, so that it can forget for a while and focus on other things.  We need what I call the ‘sanity gap’.

The ‘sanity gap’ is the ability to sit back and look at a problem from a distance, as though we were on a hill admiring a beautiful view.  The reason views are beautiful is that our minds love seeing everything at once, but being threatened by nothing.

When we can achieve a ‘sanity gap’, aggression dissipates, neediness disappears, guilt and self-criticism have a rest, and hypersensitivity gets a chance to chill.  It’s like the time after a big argument when everyone gets a chance to lick their wounds.  Eventually, the tension subsides, and people’s sanity starts to regenerate in peace.

This ‘sanity gap’ could also be named ‘spaciousness’, as our minds feel free of urgency and less trapped.


Some of us never learn to generate a ‘sanity gap’ for ourselves.  For whatever reason, we never learned to be kind to ourselves, and let our problems go.  We can’t let things lie.  We find it incredibly hard to attain a distance from the intensity.  We are flooded with worry, and feel assaulted by events.

The good news is that the ‘sanity gap’ can be learned.  We can learn to ‘self-soothe’ in a way that honours our problems, but lets them go so that we can look at them properly, and disentangle the knots we made when we were intense.


The way we build our ‘sanity gaps’ depends on the type of anxious behaviour we exhibit.  There are four main types:

  1. Aggressive anxiety
  2. Needy anxiety
  3. Self-harming anxiety
  4. Paranoid anxiety


If you are aggressively anxious, you may notice that others become scared of you.  You will say and do things that make you feel guilty afterwards, such as pushing and shoving, shouting and swearing.  If this is you, then try these three steps:

  1. Physically distance yourself from others as quickly as possible
  2. Find an activity that uses up your energy harmlessly
  3. Meditate


If you are needily anxious, you may notice yourself reaching out to others in desperation, thinking of ways to wrap them in to your world, so that you can talk endlessly about it, and find comfort in the sharing of the burden.  If this is you, then try these three steps:

  1. Find a person who will listen to you for as long as you need
  2. In between talking sessions, try to find secondary activities that absorb some of your attention for a while
  3. Meditate


If you are self-harmingly anxious, then you may notice yourself punishing and challenging yourself, caught in cycles of bingeing (attempts at comfort) and purgeing (attempts to assuage guilt).  If this is you, then try these three steps:

  1. Try to keep yourself in others’ company, to reduce the internal pressure
  2. Try to moderate behaviour extremes, finding a middle ground, with some rules and some freedoms
  3. Meditate


If you are paranoid-anxious, then you may notice yourself beginning to believe that friends, family and the world are your enemies in subtle ways.  You will see people acting against you, and feel small and undermined.  You will want to keep away from people.  If this is you, try these three steps:

  1. Find simple ways into social worlds – visit supermarkets, cafes, easygoing people – environments where you can interact with others without a direct sense of threat
  2. Find cycles of generosity where you can.  Perhaps send out a few thank-you messages, or some simple gifts
  3. Meditate


OK, so step three is meditation in each case.  This is because meditation, well-practiced, is amazing at creating an extra-supportive ‘sanity gap’.  It’s all about personal spaciousness.

When we meditate, we sit and let our minds rest.  For the meditation time, we allow nothing and no one to dominate our minds.  We let thoughts come and go, but we learn to focus on the fact that no one thing or person should be able to command our attention, unless we wish it.

Though consistent practice, our aggression,  neediness, self-harming tendencies, and paranoid tendencies subside.  We become good at returning our minds to peaceful, simple equilibrium, whatever thoughts are trying to tempt us into urgent activity.


When we are good meditators, we become experts at emotional self-sufficiency.  We can be pressurised, mistreated, or ignored, and we can still function calmly, because we are not dependent on any particular set of conditions for our comfort.  We can accept all conditions, because we realise they are just ‘how it is’.  Our moods don’t depend on everything being ‘just so’. Everything already is ‘just so’, giving us space for peace.

This doesn’t mean we become passive.  We can still act.  It’s just that our actions are free of revenge, or desperation, or self-hate, or fear.  We can be calmly present everywhere.


In summary, life pressurises us, leading to a sense of urgency which we call anxiety.  This results in different behaviours in different people, depending on whether we take out our anxiety on ourselves or others, and whether our anxiety is hidden or on display.  Aggressive anxiety openly pushes others; needy anxiety openly pulls others; self-harming anxiety secretly resents the self; and paranoid anxiety secretly resents others.

Improvement tactics for the different forms of anxiety differ.

But with all forms of anxiety, meditation can help to provide a ‘sanity gap’, so that we don’t feel so pushed around by the world, and have space to breathe for ourselves.