What is anxiety? Wouldn't we all be better off without it?
We all experience anxiety. Sometimes it becomes so intense that it completely takes over and we're unable to focus on anything else, meaning we end up unable to perform as well as we know we can in situations when we really need to be at our best. For most people these "anxiety attacks" are relatively brief and infrequent - when the dreaded exam or high pressure meeting is over we return with relief, to a "normal" state of functioning. For some people, however, these experiences of intense anxiety are much more prolonged and have a severe effect on their quality of life. Living in this way can be physically and emotionally exhausting.
What is anxiety? What purpose does it serve? Wouldn't we all be better off without it?
In evolutionary terms we can understand anxiety to be an adaptation of an important defence mechanism which was necessary for our distant ancestors to survive in very hostile environments in which the threat of death from predators or competing tribes was often present. The uncomfortably heightened self awareness we feel when anxiety strikes is a state of mind which acts as a bridge to the “fight, flight or freeze” instinct hard-wired into our amygdala - the primitive emotional centre of our brains which is often referred to as the “lizard brain”, because this is pretty much all lizards have for a brain. When we're anxious we're in a state of readiness for action, even though in the modern world the "action" we are required to deal with in our daily lives mostly takes a very different form to that which our prehistoric ancestors needed to confront in order to survive.
This kind of explanation may be sufficient for occasional sufferers of anxiety but what about those people who are living in a state of constant anxiety, debilitated by fear, paranoia and even frequent panic attacks?
Existential counselling has a lot to offer those of us who find ourselves in this challenging position, who for some mysterious reason are unable to switch off our “fight, flight or freeze” instinct and so are stuck in a pattern or cycle of experience we could call an existential crisis. A crisis like this is a great big warning sign that something, somewhere in our lives is out of balance, that our deeper needs are not being met in some very important ways. It's our body's way of telling us, “enough is enough, something has to change!”
Existential counselling understands that, in the end, anxiety is neither something we can avoid or a sign there is something wrong with us, it is one of the most natural experiences in the world. It is, however, something we can reduce. If we're able to explore our anxieties in a safe, supportive environment, rather than try to ignore or belittle them, then they can teach us a great deal about ourselves, including what our deeper needs may be. These deeper needs can be very difficult to get to grips with, but our anxieties can offer us some important clues. Once we're able to get in contact with what it is we really need and take steps to meet those needs, then we will naturally have less to be anxious about.
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About Oliver Bettany
I am a humanistic counsellor and ecotherapist working in Brighton, Eastbourne and the Sussex countryside. I work in an existential way with all my clients, particularly those who may be experiencing acute anxiety. For more information about existential counselling take a look at my profile and website.