Anxiety - Part II (Existential)
Alrighty, friends. This is a continuation of the first part in a series of posts on anxiety. Each post covers one distinct aspect of anxiety (existential, biological and genetic, evolutionary, psychological, and behavioral) and all aspects can comprise your (or anybody's) experience with anxiety. Although some might be more relevant than others. The purpose of this isn't to tell you how to 'cure' your anxiety and it's not a magic fix; the purpose is to think about anxiety in a different way.
I don't know how to say this, so I'm just going to say it. Lots of counselors that I know think of anxiety as purely a psychological problem. That is, they believe anxiety is a result of your thoughts... and that's about it. My take is that there are many more pieces to the puzzle (see the list above of all the different aspects). When we start to understand all these aspects and see how they influence and/or show up in our own lives and in our experience of anxiety, then we can start moving forward in an effective and efficient way in managing and living with our anxiety.
SO, now that I added that little caveat above, let's get back to the task at hand. Again, this is part II of writing about existential anxiety. I broke it up because the first blog was getting outta control in length. I had to shut myself up and continue the saga later on. That later on is now. Here we go.
As a recap and if you haven't read the first post (you can do so here), I wrote about how meaning and freedom can feed into existential crises and existential anxiety. Two other pieces of existential anxiety and our human condition (Yalom term) are isolation and death. In short, these are two things we, as humans, cannot avoid. In any way. And they are anxiety provoking, in and of themselves.
This is a funny one to think about. I mean, when we think about humans, we have some basic assumptions about them. One of those assumptions is often that we're social creatures. Research highly supports this - we don't do well when we're lonely. We suffer both mental and physical negative effects when we feel isolated and lonely (there's even research to reduce loneliness for people). And social support, on the other hand, is a protective factor against the negative effects of loneliness.
All of the above said - this isn't what we even mean when we're talking about isolation. When we talk about isolation in an existential context, we're talking about the fact that, although we can get really, really close and intimate with people, we can't ever really know what it's like to be them. And they can't ever know what it's like to be us. We can't know what exists outside of our own bodies, ever. Our whole experience in life is, quite literally, isolated to us. It's great to share moments with people, but even when we walk away and/or talk about that moment with the same person who was there, we experience it significantly differently. And when we really sit and think about that (or if it just comes over us like a runaway train), we can feel immense anxiety. Thinking that we're alone in the world, which is great and big, can be very terrifying.
Ah, last, but definitely not least. And no, pun not intended (get it - "last?!"). Seriously, it's going to be the very last thing that ever happens to us in our earthly domain. And, unsurprisingly, it's horrifying for some people. Again, not all, although I would argue that it could be horrifying for all, depending on one's level of interaction with it. That's a different sort of post, though.
(Note the quote on the right. If you can't tell, I think Yalom is the bee's knees.) And here's the gist of death anxiety. The whole idea of dying, nothingness, ceasing to exist can be, again, extremely terrifying. And yet, it's part of being human. Everything that's alive will die. It's inevitable and still terrifying. When we, as humans, come to face death in our lives, we typically feel intense anxiety around it. This can show up in various forms - questioning what's going to happen to us, our families, our friends, whether there's an afterlife, what the purpose of living and life is, how it's going to feel when we die, if we'll be aware of it, whether or not any supernatural/transcendent being exists, and on and on and on. I'm sure I'm missing some examples.
When we're in this place, feeling that intense anxiety, we can't really do much other than to accept the fact that it's there and try to process through it with people who are willing to talk about it ("Hi there, I'm Tara!"). Facing it, over and over and over, and turning towards it rather than away from it, will save us (to steal from Yalom). When we actually face the things we're terrified of, we gain back the power. We can't change the fact that we're going to die at some point in our lives. Sometimes, it's unfair. Sometimes, it's devastating. Sometimes, it's tragic. Sometimes, it's sudden and unexpected. Sometimes, it's beautiful. But no times is it inevitable. And the anxiety comes from the fact that we don't really know what's on the other side. Yes, some of us have beliefs about what's beyond this life, but existential fears come into play when we don't know for certain.
What's next is that we're going to continue down our path to understanding anxiety in a, hopefully, richer and more robust way. I don't know about you, but I'm one of those people who likes to understand things as much as I can and in a way that makes sense for me. That means multiple angles of one thing. Think of it like a figurative 3d picture. We're seeing anxiety from a bunch of different views and perspectives - this is why I think anxiety is fascinating.
I'll also point this out - I don't like to move forward in working with people who have anxiety until I'm sure of what piece of their anxiety they're struggling with the most. For example, some people come in to deal with death anxiety, while others come in to deal with the psychological components of anxiety. The sooner I (and my clients) understand what they're struggling with, the sooner we can do more effective work. It's beautiful. And hard. And rewarding. All of the above.
Until next time, my friends...