The Gift of Anxiety: make anxiety work for you, not against you

Calm in the StormSounds like a tall order. Is it possible for anxiety to be anything but a curse?

The popular view of anxiety casts it as something abnormal, an illness, something to be avoided at all cost. I don’t know the stats but I’m willing to bet that treating anxiety accounts for a good majority of all prescription narcotics flying off drugstores shelves today.

Without a doubt there are forms of anxiety which are abnormal and which do call for professional intervention. Anxiety disorders have ruined more than a few lives. But generally speaking anxiety can actually aid in mental health if used correctly.

Rollo May, one of the premier researchers on anxiety, found that in terms of psychosomatic illness and neurotic patters, “Anxiety is the psychic common denominator of all disease as well as of all behavior disturbances.” Emmy Van Deurzen, a top Existential therapist in Brittan, describes anxiety as “that basic unease or malaise which people experience as soon as they are aware of themselves and of their own responsibility in making something out of nothing.”

All disease and behavior disturbances are linked to anxiety? Anxiety is essentially unease and malaise? How is any of this positive for mental health?

The problem

Let’s face it, we are groomed to avoid anything that smacks of pain, insecurity, chaos, meaninglessness, mortality and the like. We are a culture that thrives on intellectual smokescreens and illusions to protect our fragile mental states from the haunt of reality. We hustle about our daily lives creating distractions and pinning our identity to whatever social persona we have chosen (or has chosen us), be it our professional titles, our economic status, our education level, our fashion sense, our artistic abilities, etc. Anxiety is the last thing we want interfering with our living theatrics.

But here’s the kicker: anxiety is a primary sensation inherent in self-consciousness. If you are self-conscious, you have anxiety. Being self-conscious means being aware of your own personal freedom to think and be as you chooses. Our freedom and the responsibility that comes with it form the bedrock of anxiety. To remove anxiety is to remove our distinctive human quality. In addition, anxiety signifies our awareness of our vulnerability in the world. It is the threat of meaninglessness, or as Kierkegaard said it: it is the “fear of nothingness.”

People can of course give up their freedom and try to overcome the sting of anxiety—insecurity, aloneness, mortality, etc.—by falling back on whatever escape route they have carved out. But, “Escape is not a solution which leads to happiness,” as Erick Fromm put it, rather, “It assuages an unbearable anxiety and makes life possible by avoiding panic; yet it does not solve the underlying problem and is paid for by a kind of life that often consists only of automatic or compulsive activities.” In other words, avoiding anxiety is a short road to neurosis.

A proposed solution

So what is the solution? Since anxiety is a human trait that cannot be eliminated, or even avoided without harsh consequences, what is one to do with it?

I have come to settle on a similar view that Kierkegaard expressed in his genius work on the subject, “The Concept of Anxiety.” In it he describes anxiety as the great “school of possibility” which leads spirited men to a sense of thankfulness in the face of actuality. His treatment of the subject is far beyond a faithful retelling here so I might do best to simply encourage all who struggle with anxiety to read the book in full. But the idea of anxiety as a form of self-education is exactly where I believe the answer begins.

For those who take Christ’s words with all seriousness when He said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” or the similar dictum of Socrates, “Know thyself” (repeated by all the great philosophers east and west throughout the generations), will easily acknowledge the great worth of self-introspection. There are few tools more effective than anxiety in revealing the true self to the individual who is bent on self-knowledge. But it takes serious resolve on the part of the individual to become educated in this school.

If one is careful to listen, anxiety will tell the tale of oneself on both a conscious and an unconscious level. One will discover what she truly is—both good and bad.

The education requires much courage because those who venture will likely discover things about themselves that they either never knew or wittingly suppressed: fears of every variety, anger, discontentment, loneliness, self-doubt, religious doubt, ambitions, hopes, and heartaches. Once revealed it is then within the power of the individual to choose what he will keep and what he will discard.

I believe that the courage to be vulnerable to the messages anxiety sends will ultimately result in a great easing of the bonds of self-deception. Once the bonds are loosed then the person is better able to rise above the coping mechanisms, which show themselves in the automatic or compulsive activities that Fromm described. From there the freedom to live authentically—to discover the kingdom of heaven within—is in range.

Some practical advice

But where does one start? I believe it is in the actual moment of anxiety when anxiety can be mined for all its worth, primarily because this is when ones affect (or emotional response) is at its peak and most revealing. I will attempt to give an example of what I mean, hoping that it does justice to the discussion rather than detract from it.

In the moment of anxiety stop and ask yourself: what am I anxious about? Define it. Give it a voice. Do not allow your mind to sit passively through the episode. Passivity only encourages the anxious thoughts to get out of control and play out as they choose. Confronting the anxiety with direct questions—yes, even out loud like a ‘crazy’ person—is a way to redirect the anxiety to work in your favor, remembering that the important point is to discover what the anxiety is telling you about yourself through the situation.

For example, take a person who has a looming fear of financial ruin. He could begin by questioning his anxiety with something simple like: “What is it about financial ruin that causes me worry?” This question may sound ridiculous to those who are tempered by a money obsessed culture, where it is taken for granted that money is THE important thing, but this is all the more reason to investigate. Why is money so important? What power does it have over my life, my identity, my self-worth; what fantasy of personal heroism have I attached to it, etc.? In short, how am I allowing my alleged need for money to dictate who I am and how I exist?

Forgive me if I’ve only wetted the appetite and left more questions unanswered than answered, but this subject requires many volumes to exhaust. But volumes of information are not important for the one seeking personal growth and mastery over anxiety. The most important thing is to become honest with yourself and courageously allow anxiety to have its perfect work of revealing your deeper inner self. Volumes of information will not instill honesty or courage in anyone. That’s why monks and sages spend all day in silence with themselves rather than Googling “silence” on the internet.

Thanks for reading!

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11 thoughts on “The Gift of Anxiety: make anxiety work for you, not against you

  1. I love this. Anxiety is primal. Years ago we needed the physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety to survive. Man vs beast. Hunger vs feed. Survival vs death. Anxiety is raw. It has changed and morphed over the centuries and this raw and basic instinct has now manifested into unhealthy situations. It has caused avoidance and plays tricks with our psyche. The concept of self questioning is valid as it aims to add realism to our anxiety provoking situations. To understand why we become anxious and what are the consequences of this is a prop in managing to decrease this. As you rightly state, we need anxiety. It protects us, it fights for us and it prevents danger. We simply need to recognise the need and let go of it’s unnecessary use 🙂

  2. Brilliant again! I’ve been trying to express/explain this for many years. You’ve done it succintly and I may be able to recommend Kierkegaard’s ‘The Concept of Anxiety’ to others. (Though I would suggest that, for many, it begins as a fear of insecurity in life and, sometimes, becomes a ‘fear of nothingness’).

  3. “The Concept of Anxiety” marks probably the very first psychological treatment of the subject in written form, and its amazing how much insight he had given his was a pre-psychoanalytic era. Definitely a classic work.

  4. Another insightful article. Just so you know, I forward most of your blog entries to family members, who often pass it on further. This means that you have a (very) small “underground” following in Southern Ontario and even in the UK.

  5. Pingback: Developing Creativity: Courage and Creating | TalentDevelop

  6. You have described my thoughts and my inner reflections in a way I was unable to. Thank you so much for all your blogposts and your views. I’d like to discuss your blog in further detail if you ever have the time.

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