Adapting Anxiety

Introversion and extroversion are not about being miserable or cheerful. As a very general description of personality, they simply describe whether a person’s default position is to look inwards, what psychologists with their customary lack of poetic flourish, call ‘inward processing’, or outwards, ie ‘outward processing’.

But for most people this distinction is not very helpful as most of us move between being more or less outward or inward-oriented anyway, depending on circumstance. And most of us do so without being aware of it, as if it was controlled via the senses by our autonomic nervous system, which indeed it is, so it does not really matter as long as we are able to do both or either, as appropriate, depending on context. 

To tweak a well-known 20th Century aphorism about paranoia: just because they are not out there to get us it still  doesn’t mean we are not afraid they are. Anxiety, which is almost always anticipatory, is a good example of what is ‘all in the mind’ or overly inward-oriented. We can be anxious about anything, of course, but whatever that thing is, it feels both not in our immediate control and also yet to happen. Usually, for most people, anxiety seems to occur in relation to something in the external world. From what might happen if we are late for an appointment, or if the wolf at the door does break in, or the house might burn down, to randomly take three examples. But for people seeking psychotherapy or counselling who are often, but by no means always, more inward-oriented, anxiety itself is often what they feel anxious about. ‘I worry all the time’, or ‘I over-think things too much’, or ‘I’m afraid of my own feelings’, are all examples of that. 

The early existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, held the view that anxiety, or as he termed it, ‘angst’, is a fundamental, universal aspect of the human condition because, generally speaking, it can lead to, or prompt, action to improve the positive quality of life. For example, feeling anxious about losing a job can prompt us to look for another, better one to prevent that happening. Or again, checking the electrics are all off before going to bed at night minimises risk of fire. In this sense anxiety itself embodies the potential for development and change. At the same time, if it not properly integrated it can cause profound mental suffering. Checking, for example, can become repetitive and obsessive. In fact some people feel they are completely controlled by anxiety and can actually do nothing positive about it at all.

Severe anxiety which is experienced as overwhelming actively prevents action. Literally sometimes. We can be ‘paralysed with fear’, even stop breathing normally, a so-called panic attack, so extreme does the anxiety state feel. At such times we need to consciously slow and regulate our breathing down and remind ourselves we are not going to die in such a state.

Those of us for whom anxiety has become an affliction sometimes feel we need psychotherapy to address its causes and purposes. 

Purposes? You might feel it is weird to think of psychological problems having a purpose, but people do often find that although acute yet habituated anxiety prompted them to seek help in the first place, now pro-actively trying to understand and even respect that anxiety, more than suppressing or controlling it, eases its intensity. 

Respect? Yes, in the etymological sense, from the Latin to look (spect) again (re). To look again at what it is telling us about ourselves. It does , after all, arise from within us. As if it is a message about what we are unaware or insufficiently conscious of, within ourselves. A message from ourselves to ourselves.

Of course this way of understanding is predicated on the binary notion of a conscious and an unconscious totality of what it is that makes us who we are. It also requires a safe focus on what we are usually not, or at least only partially, aware of. Help from a psychotherapist to negotiate an understanding of our inner slings and arrows, our dangers and contradictions, our hope and despair, our truths and lies, can feel necessary if not sufficient to the task of being who we are. 

Our unique combination of qualities which transcend the duality of conscious and unconscious and which individuates us to feel a sense of being at the apex of the triangle, of who we are in our entirety, requires this third transcendent position connecting us with the most profoundly shared, ultimate and universal meaning of the lives of each one of us 8,000,000,000 unique individuals on the planet.

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