Anxiety and escapism: a post-traumatic stress disorder
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.” Martin Buber
Escapism is the opposite of mindfulness - that is living in the moment, of living mindfully. It may be that for you, facing reality is simply too terrifying. This is at the root of your anxiety, the fear of “doing the living”, becoming frightened of your own existence. Escapism is a way of attempting to make negative feelings dissipate, without working through the necessary steps in order to come to relief through mental resolution. It’s a false economy, a quick fix, a crutch, a placebo. Sadly, like all addictions, it will only reinforce your feelings of anxiety further, whilst you seek out new ways to cope. And exactly like all addictions, such coping strategies will begin to unravel, break down and ultimately fail.
In the meantime, whilst you seek an escape route from the pressures of reality, you will find yourself facing increasingly challenging circumstances in terms of your mental health that may manifest in acute sensitivity to pain, anxiety and depression. As a result you are now addicted to anger, drugs or alcohol, or may be retreating into a fantasy world of gaming, internet browsing, or simply daydreaming your life away. On the other hand, you may become captivated by porn or shopping mania where everything seems more shiny, brighter, sharper or more attractive than your reality. Perhaps you find yourself spending increasing amounts of time interacting on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, than with real people. Constant comparison with others has now reached its peak as a source of misery, disappointment and dissatisfaction with your life. If only you had that outfit, that look, those friends, that body... just below the level of awareness, you are however, aware that you’ve bought into an illusion.
Deep down you know you cope strategically by means of dissociation, numbing out and distraction against extreme terror and fearfulness of our random, unpredictable world. At times you will feel as helpless as a toddler without a hand to hold and guide along the road. This childlike state, rather than an adult mindset primed for rational thinking, problem-solving and healthy reflection through introspection, causes you to run away from your “self”. Instead of growing into your full human potential, you find emptiness inside and mistakenly believe that is the self from which you need to hide. You often wonder how you will ever feel “grown-up” enough to become resilient enough to deal with painful feelings such as disappointment, jealousy, guilt, shame, hurt, upset, rejection, abandonment, bereavement and other suffering that are all part of the human journey.
Drugs and alcohol allow you to hide under cover from your real self, the self you do not accept. Reality ceases to exist in escapism. Human existence is to feel pain and suffering, as well as happiness and joy. If you are addicted to anger, you feel relief from the release of your feelings upon another, physical or verbal, providing you with an instant rush of power followed by the let-down or crash of guilt and shame, thus feeding the addictive cycle over and over again. It’s the same with gambling. Always chasing the hit, the win, the fantasy. Bodybuilding becomes obsessive as you use steroids, protein powders, or any other such cell-building props. Comfort-eating numbs you out until you are comfortably numb. If you are compelled to watch porn or you are paying for sex, you can imagine yourself as powerful and therefore desirable enough to have anyone you want. If you are gaming you create a belief that you possess special powers. In such manner, you are not bound by the rules of reality and can achieve a “fantasy” life experience, instead of putting all the effort you need into riding the storm through life’s lows and highs.
A current trend for parents, is an addiction to film of children escaping from extreme circumstances such as being bound by a zip-wire. On social media these videos are so popular, illustrating how parents are not coping with the discomfort that “existential angst” causes – the realisation that ultimately, human beings are responsible for their own lives. If you are a parent, as the world seems to spin on its axis at a frightening rate into darker times, you are often left thinking that you have lost control as you feel ill equipped, deskilled and frightened at the daunting task of taking care of your children. With the advent of social media bringing global news closer, it appears that although barbaric acts have been practised throughout the world for centuries, groups like Isis “appear” and are perceived as such, as a relatively new phenomenon, closer to home thereby creating more anxiety. As a tiny human parent who believes you must gather war power over the “enemy”, you simply feel overwhelmed with responsibility. Not sure you are big enough in the world to protect, nurture and ultimately save your offspring. If you have been watching YouTube clips of these escapist videos, a temporary relief can be enjoyed when real life transforms away from the perceived problem, as you have dealt with a problem in your escapist fantasy before it has happened.
Panic sets in when an envelope falls through the door, waves of anxiety knock you over as you imagine notice of a Court Order, an unplanned bankruptcy, or a letter firing you from work, an unforeseen bill or a final demand for rent owed. The same kind of panic you experience imagining being murdered, losing a race, a person or your sanity, or hurting your loved ones. Perhaps you are worried your plane will crash or a natural catastrophe will occur, such as an earthquake or plague. Instead of staying in the here and now, you cast your mind forward into a future that hasn’t yet happened, imagining at least one frightening event over which you have no control. As a result you may become narcissistic and controlling, emotionally abusive, constantly self-monitoring and/or monitoring others. At worst, you will be guilty of domestic violence. At best, shouting at loved ones for seemingly no reason or falling out with friends and family as you hold onto fixed ideas and rigid opinions about how the world “should” be. What they don’t realise, for you, it's as if such anchors are your only chance of survival, your only lifesavers in a shark-infested sea of change.
Upon reading the above, if you recognise that yourself or a loved one may have retreated into escapism, whether manifesting as a low-level wave of anxiety, a daily discomfort, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or high-level paranoid anger or personality disorder, working with a therapist will help with avoidance and instead identify the emotional triggers that give life to such escapist behaviour. Discovering the moods, thoughts, feelings and situations that fire off the desire to escape from reality: A “pre-traumatic stress disorder”.
Find a therapist prepared to help you dig deep into the excavations of your mind so you can discover your unique patterns manifesting in feelings of guilt, shame, resentment, helplessness, fatigue, depression and despair that lead to anxiety, that lead to addiction, that ultimately lead to feelings of a breakdown in your sanity. A 12-step programme with its focus on inclusion, responsibility and a shared journey towards filling in what feels like a hole in your soul, is ideal to engage in alongside therapy.
Once you have arrived at enough of a balanced, rational adult problem-solving state, you will be ready to learn to practice “mindfulness”, the art of mindful living, a way of living that, despite having been practised for thousands of years, has become popular as a lifestyle and treatment choice for relieving anxiety and any other challenges in terms of our mental health. Mindfulness helps us tap into our true capacities, feeling free to manage our lives by making healthier choices, living in the here and now, feeling calm in the moment, free from anxiety.
The road to relief is clear. The path to peace a straight line. What causes the crisis within is the question. The journey to self is the answer.
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About Amanda Perl
I am a BACP accredited counsellor and psychotherapist, a CBT practitioner and member of the British Psychological Society. I am the course lead for a stage four BACP accredited counselling diploma. My private practice reflects my belief that each of us is unique with the potential for growth and development and can move forward in our own way.