What is the best strategy when dealing with anxiety? To try to decrease this emotion when it becomes too strong and puts in danger our well-being? Or to do something else? I invite you to meditate about this!
First, it’s better to know the subject. What we call anxiety is actually a generalisation, an umbrella concept, under which there are several distinct notions. Fear is one of them. Fear is the anxiety you feel when you deal with something that is real. You are afraid in dangerous situations and that is absolutely normal. Then, there is anxiety itself, which is the feeling you get when you deal with something that is not objective for other persons, something that doesn’t exist in reality and is or happens only in your mind. When anxiety is reduced and oversimplified successively, you get only 2 anxieties: the future anxiety and the death anxiety. Both future and death do not exist in the present moment; future didn’t happen yet, it is only a thought… and… you are not dead right now… When you’re anxious about an exam, for instance, you are anxious about your performance in front of a jury of some kind, which connects to the anxiety that you might not be good enough and also to the anxiety that you cannot control everything; the fear of losing some of your perceived value and the obsession of control are both linked to the future and the fear of future (if there is no future you don’t care about your possibly decreased future value or about controlling something). Similarly, when you’re having a panic attack, you experience a dramatic feeling of being close to having a heart attack or losing your mind, which connects to the fear of death quite easily (it’s not panic that scares you, but rather the sudden possibility to die). Then, there are other anxieties, such as phobias, psychotic anxieties (such as the ones you’re having when you’re taking drugs that induce a bad trip or when you get paranoid) or obsessive anxieties, but they kind of belong to the mental health field.
One interesting observation that can be made about anxiety is that it belongs exclusively to the human existence. Animals don’t have anxieties; they only have fears. Did you ever see an animal experiencing death anxiety, that is, projecting its existence in perspective and pondering on the finitude of its life? No. Animals fear death, instinctively, when there is an immediate danger, but they do not meditate about their future death, nor about their future in general. They live in a continuous present moment. Why? Because they lack consciousness. Or, their conscious selves are too rudimentary to imagine, and therefore to generate, anxieties.
As a consequence, the humans have – well, those who are not severely mentally retarded, those who have some sort of consciousness – the anxiety as a given in their life. Anxiety is structural, it is part of our lives, whether we like it or not. We cannot escape it. It is part of our design. Just like death, which is also an element which is part of our design. And, of course, just like the future we inevitably imagine.
One can argue that the death anxiety is deeper than the future anxiety. And it is true. While death is a certitude in our life, in fact our own certitude, our future is unsure; we don’t know who much time we have. Of course, not everyone thinks about these things, but if triggered, everyone with a decent IQ (intelligence quotient) will acknowledge his/her deep anxieties.
People do a lot of things to reduce anxiety. Why? Because it’s unpleasant. There are tens of defense mechanisms against anxiety and they are great emotional painkillers, used by everyone without exception. Without them we couldn’t bear the burden. For instance, we fly into our imagination so as not to think about future or death or anxiety. We watch a movie, we read a book, we make plans. Or we do something – anything – so as to avoid feeling the fear; we fill our lives with a lot of work, with people and their problems, and if we run out of problems we begin to solve other people’s problems, just to keep ourselves busy and focused on something else. Or we turn creative. Creativity is a rather subtle defense against death: when you create something, you frequently hope that your creation is going to last as much as possible, even after your death. From one perspective, what you create enables you to “survive” after your own physical death. Look at your children, if you have any. By “creating” them, you make sure you’re going to last (oh well, your genes, your DNA) from one generation to another. And then, by educating them, which is another act of creation, your “soul” will survive further in time. Just think about that particular friend (each of us has one) who keeps living the unlived life of his parent(s). Or simpler, think about yourself and about those things you’d do so as to please your parents… “just to make them happy”. Many people “are lived” by other people. Or fight anachronistic “wars” started by their ancestors.
When anxiety is too intense, or when it appears in inappropriate situations, people go to the doctor or to the psychologist. The doctor typically prescribes pills, while the psychologist does psychotherapy. The aim is only one: reduce the anxiety or, to be precise, control the anxiety. This often works. The anxiety is flooded with chemical substances, it is suffocated and reduced until it vanishes. One can say it is “covered” or “hidden”. On the other hand, psychotherapy seeks to “understand” the anxiety, and most of the time it “tames” people to feel differently, offering an alternative. There are however some schools of psychotherapy who focus on something I believe to be a better attitude, and I speak only for myself. This attitude is about assuming one’s anxiety and learning to live with it.
Some anxieties can be dealt with. True. But there are anxieties which can’t be managed. At the root of things, the anxiety remains part of us and “a price to be paid for having a consciousness”. It is unavoidable. Yet people do avoid it. Using defense mechanisms is avoidance. Medication is avoidance. Psychotherapy, which is often nothing more than reframing the same thing from another perspective, is also avoidance. In the end, and in the final analysis, the anxiety is there, irreducible. What can be done?
When you can no longer diminish anxiety, you are left with only one option: to have courage. Sounds boring, even prosaic. This doesn’t seem to be a “miracle” solution. Yet, having courage is the strongest attitude one can have in the face of the finitude of life and the anxieties that come bundled with it. Avoidance will only postpone this final encounter and perhaps the foremost experience of the human life. Some people actually manage to delay being courageous their entire life. It is not compulsory to be brave. And I don’t think it as a basis for judging anybody. But in its final moments, even a trapped mouse will turn back to you and will die fighting… Food for thought!
Next time when you feel anxious, for whatever reasons, I invite you to be aware that you are turning your back to this experience. Even if avoidance is already a well-known habit, I hope that you will have the courage or the curiosity to turn your eyes back to anxiety, knowing that it is entirely in your imagination, knowing that it is a fair payment for your intelligence and, just like many generations of ancestors before you who made your life possible, confront it. Anxiety is an integral part of your existence. Courage is however a choice you make, not an obligation. It is your own free will.