“Since anxiety is a natural, even a sacred part of life, we need to learn how to become anxious about the right things in the right way, one that leads to personal and spiritual growth. Unfortunately, many current therapies are directed towards merely reducing stress and anxiety. But if, as the existentialists observe, anxiety is life being aware of its own aliveness, then the only way to reduce our anxiety is to become less alive, to numb ourselves to life. In fact, our problem as individuals and as a society may not be that we are too anxious, but that we are not anxious enough, and we are not anxious about the right things.” — Robert Gurzon, Finding serenity in the age of anxiety
For the past while I’ve been thinking quite a bit about anxiety. Anxiety at starting a new job, making new friends and generally making small and big changes such as moving house etc. Getting to the anxiety that underlies a secondary emotion such as anger was quite a revelation for since it took much of the sting out of my anger. And what Gurzon writes about anxiety being the key to personal change has certainly been true for me. Becoming aware of my own anxiety, and the ways in which I react to it, has helped me to respond to it in a more healthy way, and to also understand others better.
Gurzon, a Massachusetts-based psychotherapist and author, says that the way we react to anxiety determines our personalities and our characters. Do we try and control it, desperately avoid it, numb it with excessive alcohol and reckless living, internalise it? I think I tried a combination of all of the above. Attending an all boys private school I got the message that boys don’t show fear (and don’t cry, although they could perhaps get a bit misty-eyed at a brilliant try in rugby). Part of the teasing at any boys school runs along the lines of: Don’t be a whuss, a girl, a moffie. Be a man. So I drifted through my school career, blindly unaware that I was even anxious. By the time I got to university I went through the usual drinking phase and then became mildly depressed. Counselling helped, I studied psychology and, after Honours, I went into teaching to get some life experience.
As a young teacher, anxiety is a daily occurrence but I learned to tough it out, partly through preparing thoroughly enough to try and be in control of the situation. But it was only when I actually studied Masters several years later that I really understood the significance of the anxiety that I was experiencing. This isn’t just something you grow out of as you become more experienced — this is a fundamental and important part of life.
One of the things I have noticed in my short time as a psychologist is that people who suffer from anxiety just want it to go away. But repressing it has the adverse effect of making it come back, often stronger and in a different guise. Anxiety can take the form of recurring worries, disturbing dreams, panic attacks, stomach complaints, sweating, dizziness and palpitations (to name just a few symptoms). But what happens, if as Gurzon suggests, you acknowledge the anxiety and try to understand its riddle? If you embark on a conversation with your anxious thoughts? Hopefully you learn to dance with anxiety, to interact with it in a way that leads to greater awareness and a more meaningful personal life.
The personality-forming side of anxiety is also an interesting one. Gurzon says that our reaction to anxiety determines our personalities. I often wonder if I would have progressed more quickly in therapy if my therapist had spelled this out for me, and given me the benefit of her psychological knowledge regarding personality traits. I think in my mid-to-late twenties when I was in real therapy for the first time I would have appreciated knowing about some of the different personality traits and disorders (e.g. Borderline, Narcissistic, Avoidant, Histrionic, Anti-social, Dependent). Since everyone has a personality, everyone has traits which can be understood in terms of psychological diagnoses. For someone who’s intelligent and who already has a good grasp of psychology I think it can be empowering to be given tools (labels, knowledge, patterns) with which to re-examine their own personal development.
Of course the counter-argument to this is that imposing a label on someone who could be vulnerable and distressed is likely to push them away. Bion says that therapists should sit on their wisdom rather than offering their interpretations too readily. And I know from my own experience that often the most helpful thing a therapist can do is to listen, to understand and just to sit with what the client brings and then reflect that back to them. Allowing people to come up with their own solutions and insights can be more meaningful and rewarding than being given the answer. But, since knowlegde is power, learning about maladaptive reactions to stress and anxiety can actually help people to learn more effective coping strategies. This education function is one of the aims of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), which is a treatment of choice for Borderline Personality Disorder.