Embracing anxiety

“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.

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4 Responses to Embracing anxiety

  1. litlove says:

    Well that was fascinating. I discovered through therapy that ME had a massive anxiety component, and being exhausted is what happens when you don’t listen to that anxiety and it wears you out on the inside, all the time. I’ve found that getting it out from under the wraps and then removing a fair chunk of it from my life by changing what I do and how I do things has been tremendously helpful for me. I daresay anxiety is a useful tool, but I feel I’ve had enough of it to last me a lifetime. I know it will return, but for the moment, I am very much enjoying a slightly less anxious lifestyle than I’ve lived in the past. I’ll certainly follow up the book you quote from.

  2. bluepete says:

    Litlove, thanks for your insightful comments. I can relate about the anxiety and exhaustion – although not to the extent of having ME. To me, it sounds like maybe changing the way you related to anxiety freed up a lot of energy, which you could then channel into your work, blog etc.
    On a lighter note, I just checked out the postcards on postsecret on Mother’s Day. I know the UK has a different Mother’s Day but since you are the blogger I most associate with motherhood thought you’d like them. Hmm, not sure I want to analyse the significance of that 😉

  3. bloglily.com says:

    How interesting! I’m particularly fascinated by the question of whether it is helpful to give patients names for things that might be afflicting them, or at least for things that might sum up their responses to their troubles.

    And I appreciate the reminder that anxiety (nd/or some of the things we feel in order to cover up anxiety) is an emotion to be paid attention to, not covered up.

  4. qugrainne says:

    I find it very interesting that some people are addicted to that chemical rush that comes with anxiety – race care drivers, mountain climbers, etc – and I take medicine to avoid that feeling. I would love to embrace it, but when I have a panic attack, it is simply debilitating. Normal anxiety I can live with; the minute before stepping up to a podium, meeting someone highly respected in my field, walking through the door to a concert I have been lookng forward to, etc. I guess there are different levels of anxiety. Before I figured it out, it made me very angry and self-medication was one way I dealt with it. I see the same thing in one of my three children, so I believe that nature (vs. nurture) has a lot to do with how we deal with anxiety. As far as “learn more effective coping strategies” I definitely agree with you. There was a time when I couldn’t even step up to that podium, but I knew I could conquer that low level of anxiety if I pushed myself, so I just did it.
    I found your blog through litlove, and have enjoyed reading your posts.

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