“A wise man makes anxiety his teacher”. Kierkegaard
ANXIETY – the word alone arouses feelings of uncertainty, discomfort, helplessness or even dread. When excessive, anxiety can have destructive power over our lives, from daily disruptions like worry, tension, headaches and insomnia to full blown anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, social anxiety, or phobias. In the long term, it can limit our potential and harm our relationships.
Despite its destructive potential, anxiety’s true purpose is to motivate us to take action in order to achieve our goals, avoid threats and prepare us to cope with difficult or challenging events. For example, we may feel anxious about an upcoming public speaking presentation, confronting a friend or colleague or receiving the results of a medical test. Or, we might worry that something we need or desire will not occur: not getting a desired job position or not passing an important test.
When present at the right moment and the appropriate level, anxiety can be an important asset. Consider job interviews that tend to arouse anxiety since so much rests upon them - income, status and self-esteem. Excessive anxiety before an interview will cause us to worry and feel nervous, even to the point of losing sleep. Consequently, during the interview we will be tense, over-controlled and under-confident - far from our best. Conversely, if we feel no anxiety whatsoever we may not prepare adequately or show enough interest and enthusiasm during the interview. In situations such as these we function best with a moderate level of anxiety, enough to be prepared and fully present, yet not so much that we become overwhelmed with fear.
Anxiety not only affects how we cope with a particular situation like a job interview, but can shape our entire personality. From our early years, we develop ways to cope with anxiety that range from avoiding threatening situations to unconsciously warding off anxious feelings by denying or repressing them. However, when coping mechanisms become extreme they can become a problem in themselves. Take for example a young man (let’s call him Oz) who experiences anxiety around feeling weak or being perceived as vulnerable. Over the years he develops emotional armor to protect himself: he avoids situations in which he may encounter difficulty or risk failure, thus never realizing his full potential. He steers clear of intimate relationships so as to avoid rejection. He highly values self sufficiency and seldom turns to others for support. Over time, it turns out that he has paid a heavy price: his defenses protect him so completely that he has become emotionally stagnant and cut off from others. Occasionally the impulse to reach out to others or step outside his comfort zone surfaces, but years of avoidance have strengthened his fear and lack of confidence.
When we, like Oz, try to deny, repress or avoid anxiety, it increases in strength and appears even more frightening and unmanageable. At each new encounter the threat looms larger and we feel weaker and more helpless. Trying to fight anxiety or escape from it has one thing in common: both approaches relate to anxiety as an enemy to be feared. Paradoxically, to break the hold that anxiety has on us, a complete shift in perspective is necessary - we need to acknowledge anxiety as a reflection of our hopes and fears and recognize it as a potential ally.
This counterintuitive approach entails allowing anxiety to surface without reflexively recoiling in fear or rushing defensively to take control. When we allow ourselves to experience our anxiety and learn to tolerate the accompanying physical and emotional sensations, over time it diminishes in intensity as our strength and confidence grow. Along with anxious feelings come anxious thoughts which tend to be inaccurate, exaggerated and distorted. And behind every anxious thought is a belief about ourselves, others or the world around us. For instance, behind the thought “If I stop worrying something bad will happen” lies the belief “it’s a dangerous world and I must control it”; behind the thought “if I confront him he’ll leave me” lies the belief “anger will ruin a relationship”. These beliefs reflect our unconscious world view and fuel our thoughts and inner dialogue. Once we follow an anxious thought to its origin, we can identify the underlying belief and begin to question whether our thinking is realistic, helpful, adaptive or beneficial to us.
So how can our friend Oz come to terms with his anxiety? His unconscious efforts to avoid and repress his feelings of vulnerability may eventually lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: his anxiety may overwhelm him in the form of unexplained panic attacks that push him to seek help. By accepting support from others, allowing himself to experience his vulnerability and fears, and practicing being more open and sharing, he may be able to integrate disavowed aspects of himself into his personality. When the crisis is over, Oz will hopefully begin to develop true strength that includes acceptance of weaknesses and ability to learn from failure. He can then see life as an arena for practice rather than a series of tests that determine absolute success or failure.
The Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, said that a wise man makes anxiety his teacher. Anxiety shows us where we are stuck in our lives and need to grow. You can learn much by being curious about your anxiety - what is it inviting you to be afraid of? Loss of control? Loss of self-esteem? Fear of failure? Rejection? What has anxiety caused you to avoid and miss out on? What skills and strengths is your anxiety encouraging you to practice and develop? Perhaps over time anxiety will teach you to be more assertive or to accept that you have weaknesses or lead you to be more revealing and vulnerable around those who love you. Anxiety is an inseparable part of growth. Our goal should not be to eliminate anxiety, but to learn to live with it and let it serve as our ally and teacher.
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