Everybody seems to be worried about anxiety. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that although our risk has been greatly diminished over the years, anxiety has actually increased for reasons ranging from greater access to research information to nonstop media coverage of disasters. Newsweek recently devoted its lead article to the psychology and biology of anxiety.
Clearly, we have anxiety about our anxiety. And we have had it for a long time. In this space three years ago, I reported that the majority of visits to doctors’ offices were stress-related. Since then, the economy has turned sour and we’ve endured 9/11 and Iraq. These national crises undoubtedly can have a negative impact on those with existing anxiety disorders, and many people experience stressful symptoms in stressful times.
But these stressors do not explain what many perceive as a pervasive sense of unease that our society has had for many years. I am more concerned about another kind of anxiety – the kind we often cannot feel and sometimes are not even aware we have. The anxiety we turn our backs on can have the most destructive impact.
This is what I call everyday anxiety. Sometimes we are aware of some discomfort, and act quickly to make ourselves feel better. Sometimes we just act without being aware of why. This anxiety causes us to reach for the refrigerator, snap at our loved ones, drive aggressively, or stay awake at night. More often than not, it is this anxiety that causes us to pressure our children and ourselves to achieve, work too hard, be prejudiced, use drugs or alcohol, or buy guns. Despite the fact that we are not fully aware of this anxiety, it lives inside of us.
My wife and I were in our 20s when she was diagnosed with cancer. We had two babies and were both pretty frightened. Despite her diagnosis, she continued to smoke and eat poorly. So with what I thought was a motive of love and concern, I nagged.
I nagged her about smoking, about exercise, about diet. I was relentless, and in the process, simply added to what was already great stress. I thought it was about love. But it was about anxiety. More specifically, what controlled my behavior was anxiety that I could not face or manage.
It’s easy to say the fear was about losing a wife and partner. But the enemy was my anxiety.
I have always believed much of life is about anxiety management. Think about it: The need to act quickly and effectively, the need to change someone, the fear of silence, the great fear of doing nothing are all about anxiety management. And all nagging is about our own anxiety that we cannot tolerate.
I understand that there are plenty of “things” out there to make us nervous. But if we were no longer afraid of our own anxiety, those “things” would certainly look different.
So how do we regain control over our lives?
First, nothing changes until you recognize that you are anxious.
Second, understand that most anxiety is neither a symptom that needs to be cured – with medication or psychotherapy or exercise – nor a sign of weakness that should be hidden; hiding it, in fact, inevitably makes anxiety worse. Anxiety is just an emotion.
Third, try to understand the ultimate fears, the real demons. Are they your child’s failure, your parent’s death, or your own illness, death or abandonment? Whatever your nightmare is, you probably have been carrying it inside for many years. And most of us devote a great deal of energy to staying one step ahead of these fears. And we’re probably unsuccessful, thus causing more anxiety.
I encourage you to think about your worst nightmare and try to face it. Most people, when they look at their demons, try to find a way to annihilate them, or use logic to make them go away. That usually fails.
If we are able to face our demons long enough to make eye contact with them, we inevitably discover they are not half as scary as we previously thought. Our demons are smart: When we try to beat them down, they get stronger. When we try to run away, they get stronger. When we try to outsmart them, they get stronger. But if we just notice them, accept them and find them interesting, there is no more energy to keep them going. Ultimately, the great fears are simply parts of our own minds that need attention.
There is an ancient parable that tells me that we’ve had this wisdom for years:
There was once a man who was frightened of his shadow and could not stand the look of his footprints. So he walked quickly in life, yet both followed. He began to run, and still they followed. Eventually he ran so fast that he died. In truth, all he had to do to put his demons to rest was to get out of the sunlight and sit down.