Updated: Nov 24
“Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”
― Soren Kierkegaard
Living with chronic anxiety is a debilitating reality for many people. Fixating on the things we care about most, it amplifies our worst fears and distorts perceptions leading us into paroxysms of self-loathing and shame. The inevitable result is a sheepish retreat from the very things that offer meaning and fulfilment. Without help, this response can become a deeply ingrained habit of avoidance, shrinking one’s life into an increasingly smaller box and perpetuating a particularly vicious circle that can feel almost impossible to break.
In this short essay, I want to explore the subjective experience of anxiety and why our relationship to it determines how it becomes a chronic and destructive presence. In a follow up essay, I will outline a full-spectrum approach to anxiety management. This will include practices and lifestyle changes that can mitigate its impact on our lives.
A crucial place to start is to acknowledge that anxiety is not inherently negative. It is just another colour on the spectrum of emotion that serves a very useful function, usually compelling us to be proactive in the face of potential risk, whether social, financial or existential. Essentially, it is a future-oriented emotional state that can alert us to the fact that we are no longer present with ourselves or others.
Frequently, it is our fixation on negative emotion as being ‘wrong’ or shameful that transforms anxiety from being a passing emotional state into a permanent and unwelcome lodger. An old adage comes to mind here - ‘what we resist persists!’. The act of resisting something necessitates that we actively focus on it, thereby unintentionally feeding it with our precious attention and energy. Anxious about our anxiety, we become anxiety phobic and spiral into a self-referential nightmare of our own making. In the worst cases this feedback loop ends in panic attacks and hospital visits.
It may be counterintuitive, but anxiety can be related to positively and welcomed as an ally that wishes to alert us to all the ways in which we are out of alignment with our authentic self, either captured by values and motivations not of our choosing, or refusing to feel what wants to be processed and acknowledged.
Often, anxiety disorders have their genesis in attachment traumas early in life. Repeated ruptures in primary relationships arouse degrees of terror, grief and rage that are overwhelming and undigestible for the developing psyche, which has no choice but to dissociate and suppress. Moving into adulthood, we forget that we adopted this strategy which has become our 'normal' and unconscious way of being in the world. Chronic anxiety is a signal that these long forgotten undigested emotions are asking to be felt and processed. The act of suppression is never a fully adequate solution to suffering as it substitutes acute short term pain for low-level chronic pain. Furthermore, while we can suppress strong emotions, we cannot nullify the sense of dread that they might break into consciousness at any moment. The result is perpetual anxiety.
The subjective experience of anxiety is undeniably difficult to relax into. Its electrical and fizzing emotional pitch is accompanied by a particularly unhelpful relationship to the body. While in its suffocating grip we can no longer ground our attention in the sensations of the body, but are instead trapped in a kind of restless purgatory. Unable to contain the discomfort in the body, we are preoccupied with unhealthy substance addictions, behavioural compulsions or obsessive catastrophizing as the mind tries, with increasing futility, to find a reason for our suffering. These responses serve the same purpose of distracting us from the felt sense of discomfort, and result in the same unwanted consequence of exacerbating that discomfort.
A good visual and kinaesthetic metaphor for this situation is the process of taming a wild horse. The instinct of the novice horse-tamer is to hang on for grim death while contracting one’s muscles in an attempt to force or cajole the horse into submission. Of course, the horse responds to this grasping with more resistance and attempts to buck the rider; anxiety has a similar effect, bouncing us out and away from our connection to the body. The trick is to embrace the bucking by learning to flow with it rather than contracting against it. In the same way, the frightened horse of anxiety responds positively by our capacity to embrace its staccato rhythm, not intellectually but somatically, instead of avoiding it with distraction (doing something), dissociation (numbing out), or rumination (over-analysing).
How does one embrace something somatically then? The idea here is to gradually develop a larger window of affect tolerance, or in simple terms, the capacity to feel and be with discomfort without energetically contracting around or against it into shame or self-recrimination. This energetic contraction is often a very subtle response, but it is always accompanied by negative self-talk that we choose to entertain. Recognizing that we have choice here is key. With attentional effort we can interrupt the anxiety cycle closer to its source.
It’s helpful here to think of your anxiety as a child in need - you might even want to give it a name; this encourages a workable degree of detachment - and your attention as a benevolent parent. By Invoking the gentle and undivided attention that a loving mother offers her child, we can bring that to bear on the vulnerable parts of ourselves that feel frightened and overwhelmed.
Accompanied by conscious breathing techniques, this kind of attentional effort can dramatically soften anxiety’s jagged edges. With practice, such meditative focus becomes an automatic self-soothing response that further supports the integration of mind and body, conscious and unconscious.