Anxiety is a sense of apprehension, unease, agitation, or dread that something bad will happen, from rejection by others, failing at life’s tasks, to sickness, or death.
We all have anxious thoughts as appropriate responses to stresses in life that are challenging; anxiety is a suffering that is universal. Erik Erikson (1950) said that every developmental stage is a crisis; all humans develop with challenges amidst the presence or absence of loving support and encouragement. Anxiety is about an inner communication: “Will I make friends? Will I be accepted? Will I get married? Will I have cancer and die a painful death? Will I find a satisfying lifework? Am I good enough to get the job? What will I do with myself when my children leave the home?” Often these internal questions are not expressed to others; often they are hidden because we worry that even our questions will make us look inferior or incompetent, or stupid. Well-meaning people often subtly criticize others for worrying about the inevitable concerns of life.
Anxiety is on a spectrum from normal anxious responses to intense, intrusive, consuming, preoccupying, disturbing thinking that interrupts a healthy and flourishing life. The far side of the disturbing end generalizes fear to many areas of life and envelops the person in a narrow perspective on life. This can rob the person of peace, creativity, or receiving and giving love. The beauty of seeing anxiety on this spectrum is that we can visualize movement from disordered to healthier responses to stress. Many faces come to mind as I think of people who have integrated healing and peace into their anxious minds.
Anxiety is personal, a reflection of the unique person who experiences it because it reflects the meaning the holder ascribes to life. My studies in psychology, philosophy, theology and listening to people have taught me that anxiety holds constructive wisdom if we befriend it. I have befriended my anxiety and through this process, have enjoyed its alternatives: peace, security, gratitude, acceptance of uncertainty and a greater dependence upon God in a complicated world.
The difference between manageable anxious thoughts and an anxiety disorder is related to how it impacts the integrity of the self. Anxiety is not an entity of itself; it is an expression of a person’s beliefs, values, emotions, and sense of place in the world. Rollo May describes this beautifully in his book The Meaning of Anxiety (1977) as he describes how anxiety can disrupt a person’s creativity, growth, relationships, and courage to expand his or her influence in the world.
Understanding the meaning of anxiety, operationally defining anxiety in the life of the individual is the key to its calming and loosening of its grip.
Anxiety is learned developmentally as a person progresses in identity formation in the contexts of building trust, resilience, security, and confidence. Anxiety is a communication between one’s sense of self and interfacing with the world. Anxious thoughts are usually interpersonal and reflect one’s self-esteem and openness to the autonomy of others.
Anxiety is about loss, how we have coped with past losses and the threat of future potential losses.
Anxiety is a build-up of inhibited and unprocessed emotions. The severely anxious person has likely not had the developmental opportunity to learn how to express joy, gratitude, creativity, trust, sadness, disappointment, fear, anger as he builds a healthy identity. Our society has taught us to suppress anxious thoughts or troubling emotions to appear stronger than we are and not burden others. Parents can dismiss their children’s emotions because they have not learned to identify their own or they worry that acknowledging emotions in their children will have the effect of cultivating negative emotions, or “making things worse.” Our emotions are inside of us whether we express them or not. We all began life as children seeing the world on emotional terms; we require adults to encourage expression and thinking wisely about emotions. Anxious thoughts can be emotionally regulated and integrated with wisdom. The problem is when suppressed emotions accumulate and create a mistrust within, a distance between one’s emotional experience and his or her desired self. This can result in identity fragmentation, emotional detachment, and self-doubt. A person who develops in an emotionally invalidating environment will develop an anxious, uncomfortable relationship with their emotions.
Understanding our anxious thoughts as themes in our lives, integrating a greater understanding of ourselves and our purpose in life is wisdom and the path to reducing and managing anxiety.