What is Anxiety and How can I Deal With It?
In the Handbook of Social Psychology, RR Willoughby describes Anxiety as “the most prominent mental characteristic of Occidental (Western) Society.” I think that’s true. In the West it seems to be everywhere, and in the East too, there is plenty around.
I think it is important first to differentiate between fear and anxiety. It’s true that most of us mix the two up, and also that they can overlap – one can feel both fear and anxiety for something. I know I do at times. But there is a difference between the two which most of us understand on some subconscious if not conscious level. Various psychologists and philosophers have discussed it and it seems to boil down to this: anxiety is to do with inner feelings and fear to do with objective outer things. In a war or faced with a lion you will probably show fear; when giving a speech or thinking about an exam you have to take or meeting a prospective new girlfriend or boyfriend, you feel anxiety.
Anxiety is more difficult to deal with than fear. Anxious situations may not be as bad as a war or a rampaging lion, but with those we get to act instantly. We can freeze, run or fight. It’s then all over. With anxiety we have time to dwell, to worry, to concern ourselves with whether we are good enough. Anxiety sticks around longer, becomes a habit and tends to eat away inside us. It can be paralysing. It can feel like an attack on the self. The philosopher Kierkegaard said that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” By this he meant that it’s the flip side of the good things and choices we have - when you have no choice, for instance faced with the lion, you aren’t anxious. It’s the things we have a choice to do but would rather not, or at least would rather breeze through, that cause us anxiety.
For all of these reasons, anxiety trends to be more corrosive than fear, and harder to master, since it seems like an attack on the self from within. Therapies like CBT can be great for conquering fears as a new response can be found to work around the symptom – e.g a phobia of spiders - but it’s harder to work at something that affects you more deeply, that seems ingrained within your very self: when the thing you “fear” is yourself and your response, that’s really anxiety, not fear at all. You need a deeper way of dealing with it.
The good news is that both fear and anxiety have their uses. They are guides to what is going on for us. If you didn’t feel fear when faced with a lion or in a battle, the chances are you’d get killed pretty quickly. Remember that bravery is not absence of fear. All brave people are afraid. What they do is overcome the fear. A phobia of spiders or snakes is based on something that may have happened when you were small or on the fact that these creatures can indeed be harmful to us. We can learn the correct response for dealing with them.
Anxiety tells us that we are uncomfortable with a situation - that we need to prepare for it. The rise in adrenaline can be useful, depending on the extent of it. We don’t get anxious about things which are trivial to us. If you are anxious about something, it’s a sign that it is important for you, either consciously or subconsciously.
How Can I Deal with Anxiety?
It takes time. Fears and Phobias can be conquered. You’ve probably met people who’ve achieved it. Anxiety is much tougher. It took you a long time to acquire it. You can reduce it and learnt to live with it, but you almost certainly can’t eliminate it completely – it is part of the human condition, even for those in the East whose society has less of it. Once you know that anxiety is universal and that you can’t get rid of it completely, then paradoxically, this is one of the things that helps to lessen it.
Most counsellors will find many ways of helping you cope and work with your anxiety. The first and possibly most important method is the simplest. It is amazing how once you start to talk about it, that in itself will help tremendously – the mere sharing and unburdening yourself of it, and finding out that you are not alone. As Carl Rogers said, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change. I believe that I have learnt this from my clients as well as within my own experiences – that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are.”
Although I could mention many ways, I will just quickly list a few other approaches here:
- It can be useful to ask “which is worse, not doing the thing I am anxious about or the anxiety itself?” Almost always, not doing the thing is worse, because we tend to get anxious about important things.
- You can learn to observe your anxiety. To be aware of it and think of it as a thing separate from you, not part of you. You are not your anxiety.
- Allied to this, is the zen method, which basically allows for the universality and natural of anxiety. Jon Kabat-Zinn highlights this in his book Full Catastrophe Living:
“The best way of looking into them (discomfort, pain, worry) is to welcome them when they come rather than trying to make them go away because we don't like them. By sitting with some discomfort and accepting it as part of our experience in the moment, even if we don't like it, which we don't, we discover that it is actually possible to relax into physical discomfort."
- Instead of fighting the anxiety and tensing up, you can learn to accept it and be with it. If you tense up, your breathing becomes shallow and your body sends emergency signals to your brain and it just gets worse.
- You can talk over the things that give you most anxiety with a counsellor. Often there may be something stuck in your past that is causing the reaction. By revisiting and feeling the pain of the past situation, you can help to clear it. A skilled listener will support and guide you through this without turning the agenda (like many friends would) onto themselves.
- You can remember that the other side to anxiety is a positive one. You are more bodily aware than people who suffer less anxiety. This can have its advantages!
- You can try think of the anxiety as if it were happening to someone else. What would you advise them to do in this situation? This calm, logicality can help soothe things down.
- In her excellent book, Self Help for Your Nerves, Claire Weekes talks about doing four things – Facing, Accepting, Floating, Letting Time Pass. Many people find it very productive to work through this approach in counselling.
- You can learn, perhaps with a counsellors help, to let anxiety out via your body. We do carry a great deal of it around in our bodies as there are many ways of releasing most of it – through breathing exercises, for instance.
- I will finish with a slight twist on the first point. Think of your purpose and meaning in life. Does it require doing this thing? What happens when you are gone and you can’t do it? The idea of death often puts things in perspective and helps us to act.