Throughout my teenage years, I experienced intermittent anxiety.
I still do sometimes.
Disclosing this (as a therapist) has always felt tricky, like I’m breaking a taboo of my profession by sharing my own experience of anxiety. Although, I don’t think anxiety needs to be such a taboo.
Let me explain.
When I was a teenager experiencing anxiety, I was desperate to know what was going on, so I convinced myself that there must be something wrong with me. I would spend ages trying to figure out what it all meant and what I should do to get rid of this feeling.
When I trained as a therapist, my understanding of anxiety changed drastically. I’m now a big believer in anxiety being an essential part of the human experience.
We live in a world of infinite unknowns. We know that at any moment elements of our life can change unexpectedly, like meteorites falling from the sky.
Relationships will fail.
Exams or job interviews will go badly.
People we care about deeply will die.
At some point we will die.
There’s plenty to be anxious about.
I have a theory that the problem is not our anxiety, but the expectation that we shouldn’t feel anxiety. It creates too much pressure, which in turn creates—you’ve guessed it—more anxiety.
Instead, we need to give ourselves permission to be anxious and drop the emotional perfectionism.
When I normalise anxiety for my clients, I can see the relief spread across their face—and afterwards, they feel much more at home in their emotional world. They can finally stop “re-arranging the furniture” and accept their internal world as it.
So much of the prevailing talk on anxiety is about getting rid of it. I believe we need to focus on how to manage our anxiety.
Rollo May, a kick-ass existential psychologist, has a lot to say about the value of anxiety. He is a real breath of fresh air on the subject.
May says that “anxiety signifies a conflict,” and that this conflict is in fact a sign of psychological health.
Anxiety shows we are aware of both sides of an issue—this means we have a pretty balanced view of what’s going on inside of us, which means we have an increased capacity for self-awareness.
This is important because the more self-awareness we have, the more choices we will have. Choices equal freedom.
For example, if we’re aware of our anxiety about starting a new job, we will be less unconsciously controlled by this anxiety, and more able to step back from it and effectively do our job. If we’re not aware of it, our anxiety can end up running the show and sabotaging this new opportunity.
Another wise chap, Søren Kierkegaard, who was a Danish existential philosopher, poetically described “anxiety [as] the dizziness of freedom.” He famously connected an increase in freedom with an increase in anxiety.
Basically, we’re all in a bit of bind.
If we want more self-awareness and freedom, then we’re going to have to tolerate more anxiety.
If we try to erase all anxiety, then we are in fact erasing a lot of life’s paradoxes.
I feel so frustrated by the toxic lie we’re told—that it is possible to get rid of anxiety. And the lazy assumption that often follows—that this outcome will always be worthwhile.
Instead, we need to learn to live with anxiety in a way that is not debilitating, but is, in fact, enriching.
This entails confronting life’s challenges. It’s about being able to speak about these challenges truthfully.
We do this by giving space to life’s big questions, and being with all the different answers we will get.
What is the point of all of this if one day I’m going to die?
What does it mean for me that I can’t be certain that this person will be with me forever?
What does it mean for me that I don’t know what will happen when I die?
What does it mean for me that I don’t know how today will turn out?
We must pay attention to what changes when we ask these questions.
The answers can often give us rich insights into how we want to live our one life. If we want a rich and deep life, this requires a willingness to experience difficult emotions, such as anxiety.
The key is not in getting rid of these emotions, but in altering our expectations of life so that there can be space for them. Now when I’m feeling anxious, I dive into it by asking the following questions:
What truth is trying to emerge?
What is the conflict here?
What new choices am I becoming aware of?
Author: Louise Gulley
Editor: Nicole Cameron