This may be my favorite series of posts EVER.
First and foremost, I love anxiety. To experience it can be hell (and that's putting it mildly), but I love to talk about it with clients because a) it normalizes what they're going through, and b) it de-stigmatizes anxiety. Both of which are wins.
Secondly, this is a multi-part blog. Anxiety is a lot. There are many ways of looking at it and understanding it, and I'm going to try to do it some justice by writing about it from each of those angles. For those of you who are wondering, "Um.. what angles is she talking about?" These angles: existential, biological and genetic (not the same, but will be covered at the same time because they can be confusing to understand as separate), evolutionary, psychological, and behavioral.
Like I said, each one will be covered on its own (with the exception of biology and genetics). This isn't a way to cure, magic-pill, or fix your anxiety. It's a way of starting to view it in a different light. I mean, maybe it's not really that bad (says the person who's not steeped in it right this minute). I know, I know (backlash from the crowd), it's horrible to go through. With that said, maybe it's also functional in some ways. Let's just, for the sake of this blog (and the subsequent), all agree that it sucks and focus on seeing it in a different way. 'Nuff said. Love you.
OH! And when you read, make sure that you remember we're going to cover other parts. That this is just one explanation and it's not all encompassing, nor is it meant to be.
When I think and talk about existential anxiety, I have something very specific in mind and it's based off of Irv Yalom (#thebest) and his work. Basically, the anxiety we experience (not all, remember there are many other parts to this blog) is a result of four human conditions. Those conditions are freedom, meaning, isolation, and death. Before you get all "pffft, yeah right" on me, just keep reading.
I'll start with the easiest one. Well, easiest in that, when we look at other people, it makes more sense. We think that we love having endless amounts of choices in our lives and that narrowing choices not only puts a damper on the choice, but also makes it feel less significant. We get caught up in this mindset that we have to be the ones who are controlling our own destiny and part of that means knowing all the information and only making the right choice. (I can see my anxious and perfectionistic friends nodding their heads emphatically).
The reality, however, is far more mundane than that. You know how we're told to limit the options we give to little kids? If you ever take a kid to an ice cream shop, you don't tell them to choose any flavor they want, you tell them, "You can have x, y, or z. Which would you like?" This way it helps them to decide without feeling completely overwhelmed at all of the options. Well, guess what? You're no different. Neither am I. Neither is any other person out there who struggles with this. We don't want an endless amount of choices, we want a limited number. And with all of that said, take one second to think about the state of our world. Lots of people have instant access to anything they want - people (i.e. dating apps, chat rooms, gaming, porn), things (i.e amazon, craigslist), places (i.e youtube videos, vacation blogs), music, etc. Yet even with all that access, we're not satisfied, we're not happy, we're not fulfilled - we're left feeling even more empty than before we got lost in youtube land, or bought $500 worth of 'necessities' on amazon, or swiped 50 people until we found one worth responding to.
*As a caveat, I know that not all people are in a place where they're swiping left and right, spending a boatload of money on amazon, or even have internet. For the sake of this blog, that's my 'norm' I'm using.
The ironic thing is that when we put off and put off and put off making a decision, we become more stressed about it, it feels heavy and weighs us down during our daily lives, and we (some of us, although not all) actually feel more and more paralyzed to make a choice. The heavier it gets, the harder it is to decide.
If it's not obvious, that's where the anxiety really comes into play. We say we want options, but when push comes to shove, most of us are comfortable having decisions made for us. And while there are other factors that probably play into it, some of the reasoning behind that is the structure that comes along with it. In a really simple way, freedom = lack of structure = anxiety. That's an existential experience. You can also make this much larger and think about it as it relates to religions, God, heaven, hell, spirituality, and anything else in that arena. When we have rules for us (even state and national rules), we feel safer. When there are none, we feel more distressed.
This is one of my favorites (of the four). There was this one time I read a quote (or maybe just made it up in my head after reading something) that said something to the extent of, "We're meaning making creatures thrown into a senseless, meaningless world." Now, at first glance, it seems super pessimistic and atheistic. And potentially it is. Upon further inspection, it also seems extremely valid (in some ways). When we think more in depth about it, we're left with this idea that nothing is inherently meaningful. Not our existence, not what we do, not what we think, and not anything. Even holidays are meaningful only because we make them so. A house isn't a home unless we make it so. That's the idea behind this.
My interpretation of this, in particular, is that when we are deprived of making meaning out of our life, we're filled with the ever-dreaded question, "What's the purpose? Why am I here? What am I doing?" We're left feeling aimless, untethered, and filled with existential dread. While we crave meaning (much like we crave structure [see above paragraph on freedom]), we're also left to create it for ourselves. The beautiful thing is that it isn't as magical as it may seem. Viktor Frankl (popular existentialist, therapist, and author of Man's Search for Meaning) dedicated a whole branch of therapy to this. He basically says that if we, as humans, have at least one thing to live for, then we have purpose and meaning in our lives. Now, don't start thinking that you have to have some giant purpose - it's as simple as, "I feed the deer in my backyard. If I wasn't there, nobody else would." Or, "I started to write a book and I really want to finish it." Or, "I'm really good friends with Joe. He and I have great conversations and, without me, nobody would talk about conspiracy theories with him." Meaning and purpose are so individual. There isn't a rhyme or reason; there's only meaning for you, as an individual.
And this is where anxiety comes in (it always does, doesn't it?). When we don't have purpose or meaning, we feel anxious. When we don't have a thing to live for, we feel adrift - much like ships passing in the night. If it wasn't for the blip on the radar, you wouldn't even know it was there. This is such a lonely and hard place to be. Hell, anxiety in general is lonely and hard.
To Be Continued...
I've written enough for this one blog. I'll finish up with isolation and death next time (<- sounds so morbid!!). And if you're in the middle of existential dread, take heart. Many people go through it and survive. And remember, this is just one post in a series of posts regarding the complexities and beauty of anxiety. Stay strong, my friends. Until next time..