On August 10, 2013, a piece of fabric saved my life.
I was hurled out of a plane at 13,000 feet in the air wearing nothing but a blue jump suit and carrying a full-grown man on my back.
Luckily, he had the foresight to bring a parachute.
Not only was this the first time I’d ever had to check a box giving permission to have my remains cremated, it was also my first time skydiving.
I had been feeling pretty anxious about playing a game of chicken with Mother Earth. My coach, however, who fell more than 100,000 feet every day, was more concerned with whether or not this nervous first-timer would be sharing his half-digested lunch with him midway through the troposphere.
Apparently, taunting death did not make this crazy man anxious. Was he an emotionless psychopath?
Well, according to the Meaning of Anxiety, by Rollo May, anxiety is subjective.
Although childhood experiences, culture, and society all play roles in developing an anxious personality, it ultimately comes down to how we view and interpret our experiences.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the meaning of anxiety.
Anxiety is not the same as fear.
Anxiety is our reaction to anything that threatens something vital to our existence, whether physical (safety, health, chances to procreate) or psychological (ego, values, self-concept).
May describes it as a feeling arising due to an organism’s inability to make itself adequate for its environment or its environment adequate for itself.
Anxiety is vague and unspecific. It is not cued by any particular danger and is often difficult to describe or understand.
Fear, on the other hand, is an objective manifestation of anxiety – a crystallization of how we feel in relation to other people or situations.
For example, a child’s fear of a person or situation he has never before encountered may be a projection of the anxiety he feels in his familial relationships.
Another difference is that fear tends to sharpen your senses or motivate you to act, whereas anxiety dulls your senses and leaves you feeling helpless.
Anxiety is a sign of repression.
There are two types of anxiety: normal and neurotic.
All healthy individuals experience some level of normal anxiety; the anxiety I felt before skydiving is considered quite normal.
Neurotic anxiety, however, has three main characteristics:
- It is disproportionate to the threat at hand
- It involves repression, signaling psychological conflict
- It is managed by various defense mechanisms and means of retrenchment
Neurotic anxiety is not due to definite weakness, but rather to inhibiting psychological patterns that prevent you from exercising your full capabilities.
It is influenced by childhood, culture, and society.
Neurotic anxiety typically stems from one’s childhood relationships with their parents, as children are taught their value and identity long before they have developed the capacity to question their parents’ authority.
When parents praise or reject a child based solely on them meeting a set of high standards, this inculcates within the child a desperate desire to hold themselves to a rigid and unforgiving precedent. As the child matures, his or her own negative self-talk will eventually take the place of the parent’s criticism. This is the struggle for all people who are dependent on authorities other than themselves to define their self-worth and identity.
Other contributing factors may be physical weaknesses, discrimination, or being low in the family structure. When one’s self-concept develops in the context of comparison with older siblings and adults, the child’s repressed feelings of inferiority (and hostility) may result in compensatory urges to achieve status through superiority.
Anxiety is also influenced by one’s culture. The behaviors and ideas most repressed in a culture such as hostility, sexuality, or communication, are often the greatest causes of neurotic anxiety.
Someone who has repressed hostility, for instance, may develop an insatiable desire to triumph over others – to be the victor rather than the victim. To be rejected is to lose. Sadly, such people may be tormented with the perpetual suspicion that others are trying to do the same to them, having projected their hostile feelings onto everyone else.
Most modern societies have a high degree of social competition in which individuals are valued based on their material wealth, accomplishments, or personal success. Social competition fuels hostility between people, as each individual is measured relative to those closest to him. This, according to May, is the most pervasive occasion for anxiety, because if one cannot pretend to some goal of success or security, he has no right to claim self-esteem.
This social hostility is also self-perpetuating, as when one cannot achieve status themselves, they join the naysayers in trying to prohibit others (gossip, sabotage, discouragement).
Ultimately, anxiety is a sign that something is wrong in one’s personality or relationships and can be seen as an inner cry for resolution.
Anxiety can be overcome.
The destructive ways of managing anxiety are repression (denial, ignoring), avoidance (laughing it off, intellectualizing), or psychosomatic illness. These simply exacerbate the issue.
Instead, you should examine what makes you afraid, jealous, or angry, as these are symptoms of anxiety that indicate some contradiction or threat to your value system.
By increasing your awareness of your emotions and behaviors, you can start to understand your anxiety and its source and with this insight, you can start restructuring your beliefs and thinking patterns to constructively focus on the realization of our goals and values.
As mentioned before, anxiety is subjective. Many individuals have undergone childhood trauma, neglect, or abuse, and yet have still developed very low anxiety due to the impersonal meaning they prescribed to these normally damaging experiences.
This doesn’t mean that you should completely disassociate from events and emotions as this would just lead to more repression and anxiety. Instead, play with how you interpret events and don’t attach personal meaning to every mistake or failure.
Most importantly, we have to learn to confront and step through our anxiety. Just as the skydiving instructor in the opening example had overcome his anxiety through repetition, we need to strengthen our selves by learning to confront the beast.
See anxiety-inducing moments as a challenge or a game that you’re playing rather than as a judgment of your self-worth. When you screw up, tell yourself that it’s okay, ask yourself what you can learn from the situation, and then let it go.
Lastly, always remember that we all go through difficult situations, but what matters most is the meaning that we choose to give to them.
For more in depth information on philosophical and psychological aspects of anxiety as well as numerous detailed case studies from real patients, check out The Meaning of Anxiety, by Rollo May.
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