The anxiety of moving forward in an uncertain world

The uncertainty of the wider world can mean that anxieties about personal changes (whether chosen or not) are even greater. The more chaos we feel around ourselves the more we might want to tighten our grip on what we feel we can control, but that can lead to its own painful difficulties. 

The influential psychologist, Rollo May, in his book 'The Meaning of Anxiety', says that '...anxiety has, at its core, uncertainty and uncontrollability'. It differs from fear, he suggests, which is definable as being in relation to something known. An example is that we fear being in pain (because we know pain), but we experience anxiety, for example with the thought that we might get seriously ill - a possibility in life but not a certainty.

Everyone is familiar with the feeling of trying to have control over their life, to get things 'in place' so that we feel more secure. It might be having a job that feels fulfilling and which meets our financial needs, relationships that are meaningful with family and friends, or maybe, for some people, it's a need for a very tidy house and a sense of affairs being in order. On whatever level it is, and whatever form our striving takes, we tend to feel happier if we have a sense of control.

Experience tells us that life can be very unpredictable, on a personal level as well as a global one: we might be made redundant, marriage or friendship might fail, a sudden bereavement might throw our lives into chaos and despair, or we might suddenly be faced with what seem like impossible choices.  How do we manage our need for certainty in life when we are surrounded by so much over which we have no control?

How does anxiety prevent us from moving forward?

When one element changes in the structure we have built for ourselves, everything else shifts in response, and that can be a very anxiety-provoking experience. Even seemingly positive changes can provoke anxieties we wouldn't have imagined. A new member joining a family, for example, can mean that relationships have to be adjusted or re-negotiated, jealousies and exclusions can arise, and painful long-forgotten feelings can resurface. Even our sense of our own identity might be called into question - where once we had a definable family role, now we feel replaced or sidelined. Who are we if we are not the carer, parent, or spouse we have always been?

Sometimes, to try and stop things changing or to feel more secure, we make our lives increasingly rigid, shoring up our defences. For some people, this can become an extreme and intolerable pattern of rituals (OCD) to try and maintain their sense of order and safety after a catastrophic change. In a different manifestation, anxiety might mean you stop going out to meet new people in order to try and prevent any disruption to your current relationships: a quest for predictability and safety, bringing with it loneliness and isolation.

Anxiety about moving from a situation we are in, whatever that might be, is often about fearing what we will lose (the known), rather than what we will encounter (the unknown), and it can be hard, even painful, to make steps forward into an uncertain future. Perhaps you've been unhappy in your relationship for many years, but making a change (either within the relationship or by leaving) seems unimaginable and terrifying. At least you know the unhappiness: you know its causes, its patterns, and you know how to live with it. What would it mean for you to be without these anchors of distress? Paradoxically, it can sometimes be easier to stay where we are unhappy than to move to where we might find a life with more meaning.

How can therapy help?

It can sometimes be hard to acknowledge that we need help, to overcome a sense that we perhaps should be able to move on in life by ourselves and face the choices and responsibilities we have. The judgement of others can be harsh, but it is often our own inner critic which stokes the anxiety about making the 'right' decisions in life. When we compare our own struggles with the apparent ease with which we imagine others deal with challenges, it can be painful, or even evoke shame, to feel that we are stuck.

Therapy can help you to become aware of patterns in your thoughts and feelings, building a greater understanding of what anxiety means for you - how it starts and grows, what it allows you to do, and what it prevents you from being - so you can recognise and manage its impact on your life. 

Exploring fears and anxieties in therapy can mean that rather than facing them alone, the therapist can work alongside you, be curious with you, support and gently challenge you. During sessions, actions and choices can be reflected on together, and a different perspective might stretch the boundaries of what felt possible for you before.

Perhaps most importantly, it is the security and trust of the relationship with your therapist, a special dynamic very different from speaking with family or friends, which can enable you to face your anxiety, whatever its causes or consequences. A therapist can meet you where you are in your life, without judgement or expectation, and help you take responsibility for moving towards a life in which anxiety might still be present but where it no longer overwhelms.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London EC1V & Bristol BS2
Written by Jane Dixon, MA, PGDip, MBACP (Accred.), Integrative Therapist
London EC1V & Bristol BS2

I'm an Integrative counsellor and psychotherapist who works with clients on a range of emotional and psychological difficulties including anxiety, depression, complex loss and bereavement. I have a special interest in the impact of feeling stuck. If you think you'd like to talk with me I see adults for face to face therapy in Central London.

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