Society of Anxiety

When you ask some people why they feel afraid, they’ll often say they do not know. When we experience continual frustrating situations, they begin to blend into one state of anxiety.

In this hectic world in which we live, few of us get through without feelings of anxiety at one time or another.

Because anxiety is so prevalent, I thought you might think it important to understand how we end up feeling this way. As a researcher, I've found the following information valuable so I'll share it with you to help you with anxiousness you might experience.

The following are excerpts from the textbook "Psychology of Adjustment," by William Henry Mikesell and Gordon Hansen.

In the foreword they state: "The problems of human adjustment … are universal. Few persons in the modern world do not suffer in some degree from feelings of anxiety, frustration. … With the increasing tensions of everyday living these feelings tend to deepen rather than improve."

In Chapter IV they state: "It is not strange that, since wants are the mainsprings of human life, the frustration of them produces profound disturbances. … If a disappointment killed off a want, we would not suffer. It is because wants, especially our vital ones [needs], are not killed off but are only suppressed that we experience keen disappointment.

"… This is why the thwarted desires gnaw at our mental vitals. …perhaps more alive than it would be had I not met with failure. Failure releases [the desires] potential strength; it [the desire] is unusually stirred for action and shows its astounding strength, just as an animal shows unusual assertiveness when blocked. …Frustration therefore, does not eliminate important wants but only accentuates them.

"…This gives rise to a very annoying experience called 'tension.' Tension from lack of want fulfillment is perhaps the keenest suffering of mankind. … White says that when we speak of anxiety we should not especially differentiate it from fear, since a person in an anxious state is just scared of himself and his world. … Sapirstein says that the one thing among all cultures which causes anxiety is ineffectiveness of contact with other human beings."

Most anxious people will reply that they do not know why they feel anxious, but that they feel afraid.

When you ask them why they feel afraid, they’ll most often say they do not know. When we experience continual frustrating situations, they begin to blend into one state of anxiety.

What has happened is that the anxiety has generalized and the person becomes afraid of himself or herself, of life and of the world because he or she has no satisfying way to get what is wanted.

This person will experience a sense of "dread" of what might happen because she has no learned skills of mastering her desires and will then globalize that the world is hostile.

The textbook continues: "He does not know what might happen, when it might happen, or where it might happen, but he does fear himself in just about every particular and wonders whether there is a calamity awaiting him around every corner… Isolation and helplessness constitute other marked characteristics of anxiety. … Mowrer says that a person is anxious when he is stuck and does not know what to do. This explains why he is in a rather constant state of tension. …

"…What really dispels anxiety is the elimination of threat to the [self – our beliefs]."

With the publication of brain research by Joseph LeDoux, PhD at New York University, we now have more insight into how "threat" triggers the survival instinct. As Dr. LeDoux discovered, any perceived threat instantly triggers the amygdala, where our survival instinct is located, and we go into survival mode.

The amygdala, an almond shaped organ in the brain, is triggered by feelings of fear, i.e., threat, and hijacks your ability to make rational decisions as it directs your attention to survival responses. All of this is happening in milliseconds so we’re unaware of the subtle changes, especially in our breathing.

We have to stop, look and listen so we can train our self to notice when our breathing changes to rapid and shallow breaths. This startle response triggers the production of adrenalin and the fight or flight responses of the survival instinct which were really essential when we were at threat of the tiger in the bush attacking us. Our life then depended upon a millisecond sudden burst of energy from the survival response. The sad news is that the amygdala does not differentiate between whether the threat is real or imaginary. Remember, it bypasses the reasoning brain operating purely on instinct to preserve life.

And, we're designed to be in a pleasant mode for optimal health. So, whenever our wants and needs are thwarted, tension arises. If the situation is not resolved, frustration ensues leading to feelings we term anxiety. And, as the textbook states, we should not differentiate anxiety from fear because whenever we feel anxious, unpleasant feelings, the brain perceives we are experiencing pain - a threat to our safety - and blocks us from using our reasoning brain to make choices.

Whatever behavior is recorded in our brain will then be used instantly without choice even if ineffective. Most of us have ineffective reflex actions which cause more anxiety. Our best action to restore our ability to make effective choices is to notice our breathing and begin measured breaths.

For more than 5,000 years, yoga masters have taught the following: breathe in through the nose to a count of seven; hold to a count of four; exhale slowly through the mouth to a count of eight.

This stops the production of adrenalin and allows you to think about the different choices you have to resolve the situation that created the feelings of threat and anxiety. As the textbook stated, "tension from lack of want fulfillment is perhaps the keenest suffering of mankind, [and], what really dispels anxiety is the elimination of threat to the [self – our beliefs]."

The most effective way to eliminate threat is to resolve the feelings of suffering.  Last week I wrote about the grieving process but I’ll mention it here again because it’s very appropriate. Our suffering is caused by our mind clinging to the unresolved threat as we ruminate on the situation. We’re told that letting go of the "clinging" of the mind to the threat, resolves the suffering. But, letting go - acceptance - is a process. How many times have you heard someone say, just let it go!

Wow, don’t we all wish it were that easy? Simply put, it means we have to work through the steps of the grieving process explained in a prior article which leads us to acceptance. Then, we can make rational choices that show us many ways to either attain the need causing us distress or discover it wasn’t what we really wanted anyway as we work through the grieving, threat relieving, process.

We experience wants in nearly everything we do. For example: preserving our home; fun; health care; even simply making a grocery list, etc. I’ve often discovered that what I thought I wanted and needed, actually was only symbolic of something totally different. It taught me to not be attached to what I originally perceived as a need, but to be open to the uncountable ways that wants can be fulfilled. It certainly relieves a lot of anxiety to become open to the many different possibilities of resolution.

Anxiety then is quite a complex network of feelings triggering responses that when understood, we’re empowered to resolve. As we understand the process, the goal is to resolve the issue when we first begin to feel tension.  Tension is our clue that we have a problem to resolve so it does not arise to more serious feelings such as frustration, anxiety, and generalized anxiety. Using the tools of the grieving process are very handy gifts from our maker indeed. They're useful in all areas of our lives.

Don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions or just want further information. Your comments are much appreciated.


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