Rethinking Anxiety

rethinking anxietyWhen a dysfunction such as anxiety – or depression, for that matter – becomes so commonplace, we must turn to our culture, which is our aggregate way of living, and examine how and why it’s producing such distress. Those suffering from anxiety are often simply mirroring an overwrought, anxiety-laden way of living. Turning the victim into the problem makes no sense at all. Such a preponderance of people suffering in this way must be a reflection of the effects of enduring an incongruous, if not insane, way of living, fostered by our prevailing worldview. In effect, the way that we are living produces this tragic result.

It is essential to address the underlying causes and not simply suppress the symptoms. The difficulty is that in our quick fix mentality, we believe that if we can quiet the symptoms, all is well. This may benefit the pharmaceutical-psychiatry industry, but not those so afflicted. We must come to see anxiety not as the enemy but as an expression of our struggle in adapting to a way of living that actually imperils us. From this vantage, anxiety is paradoxically sensible as we are reacting to conditions that are toxic. The anxiety can be seem similarly to a fever, which is simply a call to attention that all is not well. So the irony is that by medicating our symptoms away, we ensure continued suffering, for the struggle is never resolved toward a breakthrough; it is merely placated.

Moving Through Anxiety

On the more personal level, the individual taking anti-anxiety medication becomes convinced that they don’t have the resources to deal with their distress, as they become addicted to the temporary relief that the pill provides. In both cases – for the culture as a whole and for the afflicted individual – by trying to contain anxiety, we block our actualization. We must move through anxiety, not defend against it. It should be a harbinger of necessary change and growth, not an external evil to be medicated. 

An Addiction to Analyzing

The worldview to which I previously referred was founded by the thinking of Isaac Newton and Renee Descartes in the 17th century. Their philosophies and insights set in motion our dependence upon analysis and measurement, which taught us that by drilling down to the source, so to speak, we could control and master our lives and our environment. Rational and analytical thinking became the foundation of this worldview. This led to many remarkable advances with regard to modernization of society. Their teaching also had us seek, if not worship, predictability and certainty, which while fruitful in moderation, became pathological in the extreme. It is from this over reliance upon analytical and rational thinking that the epidemic of anxiety became inevitable. Analyzing should be a tool in our mind’s toolbox, but when it’s the only one we reach for, we suffer tragic consequences. Our mandate to subject human experience and emotions solely to rational and analytical judgment in and of itself excoriates us.

This  imperative, which relentlessly seeks predictability and certainty, has caused us to lose our way. Its unintended consequence has been anxiety, as our minds are tethered to assuring proper outcomes as we seek to avoid “mistakes.”  This indoctrination has resulted in excessive worrying, with an ensuing loss of wonder, awe, and imagination that are essential to a balanced and harmonious life. We have lost much of what it means to be human. The result is an existential crisis from which anxiety surfaces.

People inclined toward anxiety lose themselves to the measuring tendency of their thoughts, all the while further separating themselves from a coherent flow of life. The compulsion to compare and measure – so prevalent in the competitive, individualistic culture in which we live – leads to a further estrangement from others. People who suffer with anxiety often become engulfed in their thoughts’ relentless compulsion, which imprisons them with a flood of despair.

Slicing and Dicing Reality

A relentless questioning over decision-making – should I do this or do that – is all designed to protect against making wrong choices, and is consistent with what we call anxiety. It is also emblematic of correlated self-esteem issues as the relentless self-examining destroys any healthy sense of self. Such individuals become captive to their own thoughts, inducing horrific anxiety, as they miss the very flow of life. At the extreme it causes our thoughts to fragment as we slice and dice our life experience into increasingly maddening bits and the addictive nature of anxiety sets in.

Keeping Score

When I have the occasion to go to a baseball game, I’ve noticed that some fans still keep a scorecard, a bygone remnant of my youth. They notate every play of the game, their eyes cast down at the scorecard, removed from the flow of the game. The same is true with anxiety as it removes us from the joy of being present. If your inner monologue is self-measuring and overly critical, you’re missing the flow of your life.

In addition to society’s contribution to anxiety, there are of course particular personal and biographical considerations as well that contribute to one’s relationships with anxiety, which we’ll consider in the next article. I will also share in detail some methods that many of my clients have found helpful in transcending their struggle as they learn to break free from this torrent of fearful thinking.

 

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To learn about Mel’s upcoming, live videoconference – Overcoming Anxiety – click here.

 

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26 replies
  1. Anupama
    Anupama says:

    Very nicely said Mel! And food for thought here! I particularly like the way you speak about our relentless pursuit of certainty and ‘the ensuing loss of wonder,awe and imagination’.

    Reply
  2. carol
    carol says:

    Wow! I really liked this article! Especially the idea about looking at the culture when something is pervasive. Anxiety yes. Also obesity. I really like how you think.

    Reply
  3. Anzor Misabishvili
    Anzor Misabishvili says:

    Great article. I recently moved to the US from a small country in Eastern Europe and I can’t help but notice how complicated the life is over here. There are so many bills to keep track of and worry about that one never manages to relax. You always owe money on a mortgage, a car or a credit card and it takes a toll on mental health. Since I got here I haven’t managed to sit back, relax and read one chapter of the novel I brought with me. It’s been a dream to live in this country and it does have many benefits but I am starting to appreciate and miss the simplicity and slower pace of life in my home country.

    Reply
  4. Renee' Garrett
    Renee' Garrett says:

    Mel,

    This was certainly informative and very much needed. I am working on living from the inside out, and not allow external factors or futuristic worries to penetrate my present state of being.

    Renee’

    Reply
  5. mitaky
    mitaky says:

    Everything in our body and mind is flowing, circulating and changing much like the weather, seasons and elements outside. The thoughts and habits of thinking me, mine and I (my body, mind, life) as separate, independent, fixed and finite are false and has no basis in reality as it is. No meaningful participation is possible without the fundamental awareness of fluidity, flow and harmony of things arising out of disharmony, suffering and chaos. Crafting of personality, coping, pleasing, compliance and defenses as you say blocks our true emergent and evolving nameless roleless identity.

    Thanks Mel for what you shared on relationship..a commitment to process, learning and mastering emotions and creative communication.

    peace
    mita
    http://www.seek2know.net

    Reply
  6. Kimberly Allen
    Kimberly Allen says:

    Excellent article! I am very glad I took the time to read it. Worshipping at the altar of no mistakes and wringing one’s hands, fretting about the very real lack of predictability and certainty in life will without a doubt, lead to anxiety for many people. Creativity can be found in so many ways, such as spending time with young children or trying to surf a large wave.
    I am sure you understand. Thanks for the article. I love it!

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Kimberly,
      Yes that’s quite the point. Predictability and certainty are are the death knell of creativity. As well, our potential to think differently, see differently and feel differently all rely upon stepping out from determinism.

      Reply
  7. Larry Forbrich
    Larry Forbrich says:

    I like your approach to anxiety, however, you would not build a house without a foundation would you? Anxiety is a symptom of a larger problem.

    I work with persons in San Antonio, TX, USA. who have bipolar illness. You did a very good job of describing bipolar illness. There are two types of bipolar–genetic and situational induced.

    With genetic, some people have DNA sequences in the brain that become activated by a switch usually when they are 17 to 22 years old. It happens at other times also. Our body is a clock. When someone is 12,13,14 years old the brain starts producing hormones that cause us to be adolescents. Who tells the brain to do that–genes.

    Situational bipolar is caused by some sort of trauma to the body. It can be domestic violence, abortion, automobile accident, rape and some others. Since nearly everybody knows what abortion is, I will use that example. When a person becomes pregnant the body sets up a series of events the ends with the birth of a baby. If something happens that interrupts that sequence (abortion) it not only causes problems to the body but to the mind as well– bipolar, depression, agoraphobia, to name a few.

    Situational bipolar is often treated the same way PTSD is treated.

    Back to anxiety. This is not a character flaw, this is anatomy. Once a person is educated as to what anxiety is, it is easy to to teach them how to “get out of their own head” and concentrate on what works.

    The name of my 501(c)3 charity is DBSA Bexar County. Do not confuse us with other San Antonio groups that are basically social groups. We are a Recovery Group. We have a 40% recovery rate. The highest in Texas.

    Larry Forbrich
    DBSA Bexar County
    dbsabexarcounty@gmail.com
    210 262 2596

    Reply
  8. Teresa Pipe
    Teresa Pipe says:

    It is interesting to consider the historical origins of these changes that have permeated western culture with the need to predictability and certainty. We have also become a very fragmented, schizoid society with more people living alone and coping alone with life’s pressures. Families no longer live along the same street or even in the same continent. People are rearing their children without the family support that was once guaranteed. The pressures of life and our attitude toward them have all changed as your article highlights but so to has the structure of society and communities, all adding to this ‘avalanche of anxiety’.

    Teresa Pipe
    Psychotherapist & EMDR therapist
    http://www.tavistocktherapy.com
    admin@tavistocktherapy.com

    Reply
  9. Franklin Mwirigi
    Franklin Mwirigi says:

    From what I have read, even setting goals and targets can be a source of anxiety, especially when they are not achieved. Now does it mean that we should stop setting goals and targets as a way of avoiding anxiety? should we not put efforts towards achieving our dreams and purposes?

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Frank,
      Working toward achieving your goals is healthy and rewarding. It’s the fear of failure or not succeeding that gets in the way.Try not to measure yourself..that the source of anxiety

      Reply
  10. Jimmy Popple
    Jimmy Popple says:

    I just found this site and I’m absolutely thrilled. Nothing has ever more accurately described the way my thought process is. I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression for awhile now and I’d definitely love to speak to through email if possible to decide on the best course of action to take. I’m so thankful people like you exist it makes the world such a better place!

    Reply
  11. Bethany @ Piercing the Bubble
    Bethany @ Piercing the Bubble says:

    It is amazing (and not in a good way) how many people struggle with anxiety and are constantly experiencing a fight-or-flight state of mind. I think overanalyzing is a HUGE part of it, but I think constantly overbooking ourselves and keeping ourselves in stressful situations, due to lack of confidence and perceived unworthiness also plays a large role in it.

    Reply
  12. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Mel,

    it has been Erich Fromm who analyzed social systems and their impact on the mental health of the individual. In this study, he reaches further and asks: “Can a society be sick?” He finds that it can, arguing that Western culture is immersed in a “pathology of normalcy” that affects the mental health of individuals.

    Erich Fromm “The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

    To be honest Mel, there are only a few psychologists and psychoanalysts who do their job: help the individual, who struggles in insane societies. Most psychologysts and psychoanalysts are muppets of corporations and ideologies. They put all their effort into making individuals function to the benefit of insane working and sickening life conditions. The have to be adopted to the society. How about the approach to adopt society to human and ecological needs?

    As long as psychologists don’t realize that people live in interaction with society and only blame the individual if it suffers, they forget to blame the other part of the game. In relationships you admit that insane interaction is a game of two people. Why don’t most of your collegues do so in regard of the individual in interaction with society?

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Andrea,
      You have touched upon a major theme from my forthcoming book, A Shift of Mind.There is a word, normosis, which speak to what happens when a society makes normal that which is dysfunctional and should be abnormal. As to your questions about the field of therapists, the problem is that they are trained in a wya of thinking that obscures their ability to see more clearly. And this has tragic consequences…

      Reply
      • Andrea
        Andrea says:

        Mel,

        I will look into your book. I know what you mean, we are all trained in a way that obscures our way to see more clearly. I had to crash and bear depression to change myself and my conditions of living in a way I wouldn’t have believed about twelve years ago.

        Carl Gustav Jung said: “Depression is a woman in black knocking on your door. If you turn her out of doors, she’ll stay at your door forever. But if you invite her, offer her a seat and feed her and, after that, ask her about the purpose of the visit, you have a chance of saying farewell to her”.

        I’m far away from generalizing my point of view, but I’m also not alone in the thought that everything happens for a reason, especially if you suffer in a way you didn’t before. To take medicine like antidepressants or sleeping pills, yes, they would have enabled me to work like before, to function like before. I took the less comfortable and slow way: Accept the depression. It wasn’t the solution but the first step. I said “no” to all demands coming from outside, from others. I also have to say the depression enabled me to do so (something I saw later).

        We are all trained in a way that obscures our way to see more clearly. To see more clearly what we really need and really want and this can be something which doesn’t please the norm. Too many fears dominated my life before depression. The fear to become unemployed, the fear how to survive, the fear how to be able to care for my child … all these fears allowed especially employers to go over my limits. As a single mother I worked about avarage 55 hours a week, with a break in the afternoon to care for my child and the household, afterwards back to work.

        And the older I grow the more I see how much pressure on people increases: they are blamed by governments, companies and the media for everything: not cheap enough, not flexible enough, not intelligent enough, not stressable enough, not adoptable enough, but also too old, too good … they are the only responsibles. … Are they?

        Reply
  13. Marion
    Marion says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed the article and am keen to read about the techniques you mentioned have helped some of your patients. Can you tell me where to find the ‘next article’ that you refer to?

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Marion,
      This is a major topic that I cover in my new book, The Possibility Principle. Problem is its a year away from pub date. This refers to a process I;ve developed with my therapy clients. I’d be happy to share with you, but if you can provide me some background I can tailor what’s best for you to read. You can send me an email at Mel@melschwartz.com

      Reply

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