Anxiety is an old friend of mine. He and I are well acquainted. Many times he has been a visitor in the night that comes to greet me in that netherworld between sleep and waking that quickly causes my waking. At other times, he is the tight chestedness on my way to the office, the constant worry and going over of uncomfortable events, or an uncertainty of my own decisions. He and I are not strangers. As both a sufferer and “treater” of anxiety, I have been witness to my adversarial friend on both sides of the therapy room.
Somewhere long ago in my readings I came upon a passage that described anxiety in what I felt to be a very clear manner: “Anxiety is fear without a focus”. Fear is anxiety with an object. I fear snakes, heights, needles, commitment (these are some of my ACTUAL fears by the way). Anxiety is quite the opposite. It is the same emotional and physical reaction without the focus. For many, the physical reaction is the more troublesome aspect of anxiety. I believe it was a former therapist, that once explained, “if you were walking through the woods and a bear jumped out at you, naturally you would feel fear. Without your control, several things would happen to your body; your pupils would dilate, respiration would increase, blood pressure would increase, heart rate would increase, adrenalin would be released.” This is the natural reaction most of us know as “fight or flight”. This is one of the many ways our brain has developed of surviving. It prepares our body to either beat the crap out of or run like hell from this supposed bear. Either way, the goal is the same: If we beat it out of existence, we survive. If we run fast enough and escape it, we survive. Anxiety then is the same emotional and physical reaction with no bear.
If there’s no bear then, I’ve often wondered, WHAT THE HELL IS IT? What triggers this anxiety? Where does it come from? Existentialists suggest, and I agree to a certain point, that anxiety is inherent in the human situation. We are creatures who are conscious that we are conscious. The tricky part about that is that not only do we know we exist, more importantly, we know someday we will not exist. There will come a day when every shred of our being will be wiped from the earth. Every memory, every person who knew us and everyone who knew someone who knew us will be erased. The “we” that we know, will no longer be. From the above description of anxiety as a fear without a focus or object, one could almost reasonably state that anxiety is a fear of nothing. From the existential point of view, anxiety, partially, is a fear of NO thing. A fear of non-being. A fear of not existing. This simply is the price we pay for consciousness. Every fiber of our biological being cries forth “survive, live at all costs”. Our conscious ability knows for certain that this is ultimately a futile war cry. Anxiety is as much a part of the human being as love, care, anger and any other emotion. To be human is to be anxious.
Although I agree strongly with this view of anxiety, I believe it is only part of the story. A large, part but still only part. I believe nearly all anxiety points back to this idea of non being but there are some things stand in front of it. For me, anxiety has always been rooted in my own personal demons. Those traumas and doubts and emotional scars that I keep so deeply buried within me they can only manifest themselves in an altered form, lest they destroy me entirely. They represent themselves in dreams, in unexplainable fears, ruminations and other bothersome behaviors. I have found this to be the case for many clients I have worked with.
Here’s my plea then, as a therapist and philosopher. Anxiety is normal and natural. It’s there for a reason. Don’t try to get rid of it. Don’t medicate it away. Don’t ignore and unless it truly is unbearable, don’t soothe it. Listen to it. Be with it. Try to understand what it attempts to tell you. If one were to take a large knife and knowingly, slowly stab ones self in the arm, eventually it would hit the skin. The nerve endings say very clearly, “hey, pay attention, there’s something out there we need to look at.” The body’s pain receptors would send messages to the brain to stop address what was going ont. If one were blind and possessed a numbed arm, when the knife hit the skin, the receptors would not respond. The knife would create an open wound and one would simply bleed to death. Anxiety acts in the same way. It is our emotional receptor that implores us to “pay attention to this…there’s something out there we need to pay attention to”. We do ourselves a disservice if we simply try to erase anxiety or soothe it without investigation. It is not only a part of our human endowment, it is also beneficial.
Check out the book Staring at The Sun by Irvin Yalom
Also check out this song that’s completely unrelated to this post: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MtoKw7jkUQ