Anxiety is an unavoidable and important part of life. Anxiety provides us with vital information about our lives.
This makes sense when you consider that we are limited and dependent beings who can lose the things that give happiness and meaning to our lives, whether that be our loved ones; our sanity; a body that is free from pain and disability; the ability to pursue our passions; our sense of worth; our place in our community; our freedom to be our self rather than being overtaken by others. There are also many things we long for in the future, such as children, love, success, that we can lose by never having. These two lists could go on, with variations for each person.
So my existential therapeutic perspective on anxiety is essentially this. In most people’s experience:
Life itself and many things in life are precious (valuable, meaningful, loved).
All things in life are vulnerable to loss and violation, including life itself.
It is because life and many things within it are precious that their loss matters, sometimes profoundly.
Hence people experience anxiety as a response to the vulnerability of the things that matter most to them, including life itself.
Put together, these points describe the harder side of life. They describe the central difficulty of human existence. Hence such anxiety is called existential anxiety.
It is not just our vulnerability to loss and violation that causes existential anxiety. Sheldon Kopp wrote that “all important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.” This fact about the way we navigate through the world is a major source of existential anxiety. Important choices are often moments of existential anxiety.
Furthermore, there is anxiety inherent in our choices simply because they are choices. I spoke with a person recently about an disturbing dream, where she was invited to make some important choices which “tricked” her into dying. After some discussion we concluded that the dream was expressing the sense that, as she makes choices in life, she is closing off other possibilities. Choices exclude. This feeling of one’s own life becoming fixed in a certain direction to the exclusion of other possibilities — limited, defined — is anxiety-provoking for many people, and this person’s dream expressed her anxiety about that.
This fact that as we navigate our way through life we are limiting our lives is a fact about us which eventually culminates in death, the ultimate limitation of one’s life, which is very anxiety-provoking for many people. Clearly, to be profoundly anxious about death is not some medical disorder but a challenge that comes with being human.
The existential therapist Rolla May called anxiety “the experience of being affirming itself against non-being”, which to say that anxiety accompanies my sense, as a desperately self-preserving being, that my being is under threat by its very nature and will ultimately succumb, and that everything that is precious to me is likewise vulnerable.
I quoted Demosthenes at the beginning of this reflection. People are often desperate to avoid the war — the suffering of anxiety in response to frightening truths about our human condition and so about us as individuals. They do this through strategies such as distracting or numbing themselves. But in avoiding their war through such strategies they gain many masters. These include drugs or alcohol; busy-ness (work, pleasure); seeking after wealth, power or status; giving oneself over to social norms; to spiritual fantasies; self-serving moralities; posturing as a brave ‘existential hero’; taking medications; and so on. Existentialists have a word for the problem that Demosthenes describes: inauthenticity. Inauthenticity is the state of avoiding, or not taking responsibility for, your own life and its place in the human condition. When one lives inauthentically, one takes on many masters that restrict and stagnate their life. From the list just offered you can imagine what I mean if I call them masters.
Here is where we flip things on their head. In existential philosophy and therapy, anxiety is seen as a kind of saving grace. Albeit one that feels very unpleasant. People usually see their anxiety as a problem and come to therapy when it increases or becomes overwhelming. However this time of ‘doing something about’ anxiety is an important cross-roads where a person can choose to live inauthentically, retreating from the challenges of life (and there is a psychiatric/psychological industry that makes billions of dollars eagerly helping people to do this); or where a person can choose authenticity, facing their anxiety and growing as a human being. So when you come to me for therapy about your anxiety, I help you to stop avoiding your war and to face it, shaking off your masters. This means that you change your experience of anxiety but also grow and become more free in other important areas of your life. The experience of anxiety is an invitation for growth.
The interesting thing about existential anxiety is it is both reflective and unreflective. When a person comes to therapy with me we often uncover anxieties that they have not reflected upon. The person has evaded conscious awareness of them. Hence they perceive that they have anxiety symptoms with no real cause — a mere disorder. But through careful reflection we often uncover that their symptoms are meaningful responses to their unacknowledged anxieties.
So as a therapist I help people to recognize the meaning of their anxiety and to face it authentically. To understand the meaning of their anxiety requires that we make a detailed exploration of their experience of the anxiety. For although existential anxiety is a universal phenomenon, its manifestation will differ from person to person, informed by the many things that make them unique. Even at a basic level, one person’s anxiety might be evoked by their sense of not belonging anywhere; another’s by a sense of belonging too much. Hence it is not enough to know the theory as I present it here; the problem exists in the details and our task is to get a clear and detailed view of your particular anxieties, while also placing these in the context of the human condition, through which you can make conscious choices and changes.
Anxiety is a kind of pain, and it is normal for people to run from pain. An important part of my counselling is helping a person to locate within theirself their unique resources for facing anxiety courageously and with strength. By doing this people grow in their ability to face and embrace life in all its vulnerability. In consequence their anxiety ‘symptoms’ lessen. Their anxiety shifts from something overwhelming, from something that limits their life, to being a reminder about the truth of life’s vulnerability, a reminder to appreciate things, and an opportunity to embrace life with courage and renewed strength.
Because anxiety is an inevitable part of being human, it will never go away, and anybody who promises you that they can make it go away is a liar or a fool. However you can radically change your relationship to anxiety and find a way to walk strongly with it. By doing so you can live a richer, deeper life.
Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. While stress and anxious feelings are a common response to a situation where a person feels under pressure, it usually passes once the stressful situation has passed, or ‘stressor’ is removed.
Anxiety is when these anxious feelings don’t subside. Anxiety is when they are ongoing and exist without any particular reason or cause. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard for a person to cope with daily life. We all feel anxious from time to time, but for a person experiencing anxiety, these feelings cannot be easily controlled.
The symptoms of anxiety can often develop gradually over time. Given that we all experience some anxiety, it can be hard to know how much is too much. In order to be diagnosed with anxiety, the condition must have a disabling impact on the person’s life. There are many types of anxiety, and there are a range of symptoms for each.
Anxiety disorders can affect a person’s ability to work, study and participate in other activities. Recovery is possible with appropriate treatment. There are different types of anxiety disorders. The six recognised groups of anxiety disorders include:
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder (and panic disorder with agoraphobia)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Specific phobias
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Generalised anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders can be distressing and debilitating. They may contribute to loss of educational and employment opportunities and difficulties in family and social relationships. Recovery is possible with appropriate treatment such as exposure therapy, attention training, and a range of anxiety management techniques that can help you manage your symptoms. You can learn the following strategies yourself (using books or taking courses, for example) or you can consult with a trained professional.
The old adage ‘knowledge is power’ applies here – learning all about anxiety is central to recovery. For example, education includes examining the physiology of the ‘flight-fight’ response, which is the body’s way to deal with impending danger. For people with anxiety disorders, this response is inappropriately triggered by situations that are generally harmless. Education is an important way to promote control over symptoms.
The mineral magnesium helps muscle tissue to relax and a magnesium deficiency can contribute to anxiety, depression and insomnia. Inadequate intake of vitamin B and calcium can also exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Make sure your daily diet includes foods such as wholegrain cereals, leafy green vegetables and low fat dairy products. Nicotine, caffeine and stimulant drugs (such as those that contain caffeine) trigger your adrenal glands to release adrenaline, which is one of the main stress chemicals. Other foods to avoid include salt and artificial additives, such as preservatives. Choose fresh, unprocessed foods whenever possible.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by the ‘flight-fight’ response, which floods the body with adrenaline and other stress chemicals. Exercise burns up stress chemicals and promotes relaxation. Physical activity is another helpful way to manage anxiety. Aim to do some physical activity at least three to four times every week, and vary your activities to avoid boredom.
Learning to be assertive
Being assertive means communicating your needs, wants, feelings, beliefs and opinions to others in a direct and honest manner without intentionally hurting anyone’s feelings. A person with an anxiety disorder may have trouble being assertive because they are afraid of conflict or believe they have no right to speak up. However, relating passively to others lowers self-confidence and reinforces anxiety. Learning to behave assertively is central to developing a stronger self-esteem.