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We all carry things with us that have affected us, that constrain and limit our life. Anxiety. That’s a part of living life and being a human-being, a human that experiences, experiences things that are not understood. Understanding through our felt experience leads us to continuing becoming and growing.
Anxiety, as a word, is tossed around fairly frequently today. It’s treated like any other illness. A result of largely external factors that we have created over the past couple centuries, such as stress. Of course stress can certainly make us feel anxious. Here in Seattle, the city life and constant humdrum and rat race can take a great toll on a human being. The constant noise and stimuli and go-go-go pace of life results in us being unable to take proper care of ourselves. A lack of time and everything constantly vying for our attention prevents us from being introspective and realizing our true selves, our true wants and desires.
Your Feelings and Being-In-The-World
Our modern society, particularly in large cities like Seattle, provide ample distraction from our suffering and pain. We often think of our pain as being outside of us, external; something that can be willed or managed away. Both our society and most interpretations of religion promote the idea that there is something wrong with suffering, that suffering must be ignored and that the emotions it elicits must be silenced. To the world, strength is the promotion of a happy front, of never showing the pain or stress of daily life, of not allowing these things to affect us, of learning to repress their existence. But we all feel this way sometimes. Perhaps we do not want to be reminded of it. For this reason, Rollo May in his book Existence, noted that as therapists we begin to wonder who it is we are treating, the individual, or the cultural presence and values within the individual.
"Anxiety stimulates us, its keeps us alive , it keeps us sensitive to each other and in general it gives a great deal of zest to a life that otherwise would be dead."
- Rollo May
In addition to stress, of course, unpleasant thoughts, memories, feelings, experiences and even desires also contribute to anxiety. Especially as we attempt to forget them or to pretend they didn’t happen. During a traumatic experience we often try to prevent ourselves from truly experiencing the moment. The memory remains, fragmented and unclear, however the event has never been fully processed. We remain unable to integrate it into who we are, left anxious not knowing what will happen to us. We repress it and pretend it isn’t apart of us. In so doing we disconnect ourselves further from our true selves and we alienate ourselves from what it means to be human.
We insulate ourselves from living authentically in the world. This is one of the main focuses and goals that existential psychotherapy/analysis strives for: the freeing of the individual towards being able to live a life where they are able to make free decisions, to live a life that they are giving full consent to.
Anxiety & Freedom
Anxiety means there's possibility. In possibility comes our freedom. And freedom is the human spirit. If we live in a world where there's no anxiety there will be no human spirit either. Anxiety is the source of all creativity. You don't create a piece of art lying on the couch having a nap. You create by a struggle, by throwing yourself into it the feeling or experience within and what you are putting it into. Anxiety is always a sign of a new possibility or a possibility that is beckoning. In the treatment of anxiety there has to be a willingness to accept the reality that we are going to feel anxiety in life. We are anxious because we have freedom and are able to choose. We fear that we may choose unwisely, so we don’t choose, avoiding our responsibility as people who create our life. For this we examine from what values or experience do you make your decisions. When you examine and experience, your life becomes more of what you want it to be and therefore you can channel your anxiety into creative activities rather than simply holding off the sense of despair and loss of being.
Anxiety & Death
In addition to these external factors, existential psychology views anxiety as ultimately an existential fear of death. I know what you’re thinking, “Death . . really?” Not only of physical death but also psychological death. We fear the end of something. We try to numb the discomfort that comes with relinquishing our perceived control over life and even over ourselves. Society promotes the idea that we can find a "happily ever after." That if we can only reach a certain place, or achieve a certain status, or look a certain way, or make a certain amount of money, that then there will be no more need for improvement, and no more need for struggle. Society promotes the idea that perfection is possible; that we can reach a place where there will be no more pain and that the feelings and emotions that we know are true are merely illusions that can be extinguished through the exertion of self control.
Anxiety, Necessity for a Fulfilled Life
In reality, coming to terms with anxiety is a necessary part of what it means to be human and, even more, learning to work with it leads one to a fulfilled life. Anxiety, just as with any other emotion or feeling, is a part of life. It gives life meaning and needs to be experienced fully. In an effort to reduce our pain, we try to pretend painful experiences never happened or that they didn’t really affect us very much. Thus we become jaded and we begin to lose sight of who we truly are. Through counseling, we can talk through these events. These memories can be examined and brought into the light in a gentle and understanding environment. It can be difficult to face them alone. Through counseling, your emotions can be validated by another. You realize that there is nothing wrong with how you feel; it is natural and part of what it means to be human. Unpleasant experiences and emotions are just as much a part of us and a part of who we are as joyous ones are. By coming to terms with them we are nearer to self realization.
The conflict that causes anxiety is the conflict between where I, we, are now, the present reality, and our expectations.
In addition to the benefits of becoming one with our true selves, learning to embrace anxiety helps us to take action and to become more productive in our day to day life. The truth is that factors that cause stress never truly go way. There will always be bad news, deaths, sickness. Many learn to cope with these things by becoming jaded and pretending that they are not affected by them; that the fear and sadness caused by these things isn’t real. In so doing, we also begin to become unable to feel the happiness and joy of life. In attempting to become less anxious, we ironically become more anxious through the stress of not being at peace with ourselves.
Not Just a Living-With, but Thriving With Anxiety
By embracing anxiety we can not only do we learn how to better cope with stress and unpleasant events but it can also spur us to action. The fear of death, always lingering in the back of our minds, helps us to fully appreciate the value and the gift of time. Through realizing, and embracing that our time here on Earth is limited, instead of shutting this reality out, we can become more productive and learn to put our effort into pursuing whatever it is that we desire. What it is we want in life? By coming to terms with all the small deaths in our lives, especially those that have not yet occurred, we can appreciate our relationships even more. By accepting our lack of control over events, instead of becoming egotistical, we are able to see where we do have power and choice. Living in this place, it becomes far easier to deal with the painful events or failures that may come in the future.
Instead of attempting to shut anxiety and pain out, or providing a cure or a route to a “happily ever after,” counseling provides the means to work through difficult experiences and helps you to realize that there’s nothing wrong with them. Learning to approach anxiety in this way will help you to move forward and to become more fulfilled in daily life. Counseling can provide you with the ability to learn to accept the truths that you already know deep down, and to begin living authentically who you truly are.