Anxiety And Hope

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We usually think of anxiety as arising from the threat of nothingness. We face an uncertain situation with the possibility of a bad outcome, like death or the termination of a relationship, and our existential anxiety skyrockets. Without uncertainty there is no reason for anxiety. Imagine for example that you are standing on the middle of a lake that has frozen over. You have no reason to believe the ice will break because you have been walking out on this lake during the winter months since you were very young. But all of a sudden you hear a loud, splintering sound, and look down to see cracks in the ice forming all around you. That sense of calm and tranquility that you had just a moment before will be replaced by anxiety, prompting you to scramble for safety.

We can see by this simple illustration that anxiety is your best friend and plays a pivotal role in survival. If you hadn’t felt any, you wouldn’t have felt the very pressing need to get to more solid ground, and you probably would have died. Now imagine that despite your best efforts, you are unable to avoid plunging into the freezing cold water. There is no one around to hear your cries for help. You continue to struggle but to no avail. As the darkness sets in your anxiety will dissipate, being replaced with acceptance as you realize there is nothing you can do now to change your fate.

I know this was a morbid example, but it illustrates the most important aspect of anxiety, which is that its function is to help you survive. It is cued off by the threat of nothingness, and the operative word is threat. The outcome is not certain, which means you still have a chance to get to solid ground. Once there is no chance, once the threat becomes an unchangeable reality, there is no longer any reason for anxiety.

Our situations are much more complicated in the modern world than they were when humans were struggling to survive in nature though. Most of the existential anxiety we feel in our lives is cued off by the threat of symbolic nothingness, not real nothingness. And since death is not imminent, this anxiety can stick around a lot longer than it really should, since we have the choice to do nothing to change our situations yet we don’t die.

Many people begin to accept high levels of anxiety as just a given in their lives without realizing their anxiety is broadcasting the most clear message possible that something needs to change. Unconsciously they might be terrified of what enacting this change might entail for their lives, like ending a relationship that has run its course but still provides some important functions, or deciding to look for a career that will provide more meaning but less financial security. So they stay put, doing nothing, and separate their anxiety from the uncertainty in their lives that is the cause of it.

If you find yourself feeling a lot of existential anxiety, but instead of moving to more solid ground you aren’t trying to change anything about your situation, escaping into dreams, fantasies, and diversions, you’ve got to realize that this anxiety is never going to go away until you face and overcome the threat of nothingness that is cuing it off. Anxiety is not your enemy, even though the means it uses to get your attention can certainly feel like your anxiety has it out for you. But what other means could it use? Release dopamine into your system, making you feel calm and content? In that case you would feel no sense of urgency whatsoever to change what is wrong.

Take your anxiety seriously, and instead of subscribing to the current idiotic medical model that focuses on the symptoms, explaining anxiety away as simply an overactive amygdala, realize that your amygdala is overactive for a very good reason. When you take care of that reason it will probably calm back down and your anxiety will go away.