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Calm • Anxiety

Anxiety-as-Denial

We humans are all, in a variety of ways, experts at ‘denial’.

Confusingly, some of these forms of denial are much harder to spot – and therefore to deal with – than others. Sometimes, the manoeuvre is on the surface: someone exhibits a blatant refusal to think or talk about a particular issue or else runs away into drugs or alcohol.

But there are more subtle forms of evasion and one of the hardest to get to grips with is anxiety. We don’t typically think of anxiety as a means of escape. Because there are so many genuine things to worry about, it can be hard to see that we may at points be using anxiety in a very particular and psychologically costly way: we are worrying about everything, continually, in order to stop ourselves from understanding, and feeling sad – very sad – about something specific in our pasts. Anxiety has grown into an alternative to self-knowledge.

Abstract painting by Piet Mondrian: bisecting lines of yellow, red and blue.
Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942

The dividing line between legitimate concern and anxiety-as-denial is difficult to discern. It can take a long while to see that someone (who might be ourselves) is worrying about money, or their career, or reputation or health in an obsessive and unnecessary way and in lieu of something else: an encounter with orphaned bits of themselves. 

What drives the incessant worry about everything is a refusal to be sad about something. We are constantly anxious as an alternative to a reckoning. We are obsessing ourselves with certain distinctly unpleasant worries – as a way of ensuring that certain even more difficult thoughts will stay out consciousness. 

The way to start to interrupt this pattern of substitute worry is to ask ourselves a very confronting (but not unkind) question: If I could not worry about this [fill in the blank], what else might I need to think about?

The question might make us feel confused, thoughtful and sad. We might need to confront a strange idea: maybe there isn’t so much to worry about, but there is quite a lot to regret. What may need to replace worry is sadness. The thought, though difficult, is also hopeful. We can be on the path to being a lot less worried once we have gathered the courage to mourn.

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