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Four Ways of Coping With Anxiety

It can be hard for people who have little close up experience of the problem to appreciate quite what suffering from Anxiety might involve. We’re not talking – here – about the odd bout of nerves or a moment of trepidation ahead of an important event. This isn’t fear or a touch of worry. Anxiety involves a remorseless daily debilitating sense that being alive is an exhaustingly risky and unpredictable business, that something appalling – which we can sometimes name clearly and sometimes can’t at all – is out to get us, that we’re required to be permanently on our guard, from the moment we wake up (and even while we’re asleep), and that nothing good and calm can ever be real or lasting. For the sufferer from Anxiety, the most apparently innocuous challenges assume a gargantuan scale: going to the supermarket, having a coffee with a colleague, attending a party. The sufferer has to work at least ten times as hard as a less beset person to just keep going; they deserve medals for what others might consider routine, or even pleasurable. They reach the end of a so-called ordinary week and might feel that they have been in battle or scaled a mountain. What might register as a two or three in severity in a typical person’s mind will, for the sufferer, always be a nine or a ten.

There are pills – some very good ones – that may help contain the anxiety but there are also ideas and therapies that aim, as ambitiously, to understand it. Four stand out.

1. Understanding the Past Projected Forward

In the past of almost every anxious person lies something extremely frightening; it might be a single event, or an atmosphere in a household. There will have been a father who was drunk and violent, or a mother who was maybe belittling or a sibling who died young. There might have been a bullying stepbrother or an incident of assault. And from this, the sufferer has formed an overwhelming conclusion which manifests itself every hour of every day: the world is not a safe place.

Furthermore, they have concluded that the best way to cope with the danger is to be always on guard, to sleep – as it were – with a gun at one’s side, to be permanently vigilant and primed to call the alarm. Behaviour that might once have made a lot of sense continues indefinitely into an often much more peaceable present – though the distinction doesn’t exist for the sufferer.

As the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott put it: ‘The catastrophe one fears will happen has already happened.’ But – as he went on to explain – the catastrophic element is not remembered, fathomed or mourned, and leaves its legacy in the form of unending waves of nebulous anxiety. Anxiety stems at least in part from a catastrophe that has not been sufficiently understood.

The task – therefore – is to try always to give room for the catastrophic situation which primed our mind and body into a state of tension, in the hope that we can with time learn to localise the sense of dread, to stop it from inspiring a feeling that our organs are about to collapse or burglars enter the house and attack us.

It is not – as we might think – that the entire world is dangerous; but it may feel so until we can start to assemble our memories of what particular bit of it truly was. The party, the office reunion, the trip to the shops, these are not really what we have to fear – and we stand a chance of doing so a little less often once the properly terrifying elements of life come more clearly in view.

2. Understanding Internalised Aggression

All of us carry a lot of aggression within us. It’s hugely normal to feel – at points – extremely angry, vicious, upset, vengeful and envious. But not all of us have grown up remotely able to accept these sides of ourselves. We may have been under intense pressure to be good boys and girls; we might never have been able to have any rough and tumble. We might have had to keep every less than savoury thought away from our parents. We couldn’t complain that something felt unfair or that we were not quite who they wanted us to be. We were denied that most vital of stages in individual development: an adolescence. 

As a result, any thought of ours that is less than obviously kind may now frighten us immensely. It’s one of the great insights of psychology that aggression that originates in, but cannot be felt by, us has a habit of being deflected outwards and then returning back in the form of anxiety. We feel a worry that ‘everyone’ hates us, or is out to get us, or might harm us when, in truth, it’s we who – deep down, in a buried bit of our authentic selves we have had to disown – would rather like a chance to roar, bang our fists, complain, pull our tongues out and scream. We become frightened of everything when in our depths, there are certain kinds of honest expression that we have been denied.

Experience suggests that our levels of general anxiety may drop markedly once we’re given the opportunity to connect with our more potent, less ‘nice’, less acceptable or accepted sides. Once we’re allowed to roar, there may be a lot less of a need to tremble.

3. Companionship

An often overlooked cause of anxiety is loneliness. We’re more anxious than we might be because – for far too long, in a way we’re not even probably aware of – we have been used to having to face our problems in a completely isolated way. We’re far more alarmed than we should be because we’ve only had our own minds to rely on.

In the background of many highly anxious people is an absence of supportive figures with whom troubles could be aired. Small children are – by nature – filled with apprehensions and vexations: there might be a tiger under the bed, perhaps the wind in the trees is a monster, someone at school called us a weirdo and threatened to steal our pencil case. In a containing, loving family, these feelings can be placed into another mind, and there interpreted, set in context and disarmed. No, says the kindly parent, there really isn’t a tiger under the bed, but let’s have a look together anyway and you can hold my hand while we do so. Maybe that boy is being made to feel horrible at home, and that’s why they have such a need to frighten people at school. 

When as adults we feel beset by anxiety, we don’t need anyone to say anything remarkable or original. We just need them to be around to turn things over with us when our own solitary thoughts threaten to get very bizarre and out of hand. Like a loving parent, they can help reassure us that there might not be too wild animals at the party and that an unfriendly person might not have meant them particular harm. This kind soul might be a friend, a lover or a therapist; their mission will be the same: to take the contents of our perturbed imaginations and turn them into something manageable. We return to reality on the back of small loving sentences: ‘Maybe you’re getting this backwards…’ and ‘I wonder if this is a bit of an exaggeration?’, ‘Shall we go through this again…?’ and ‘ Let’s see if this is really the case?’

Part of equipping ourselves for a life of anxiety is recognising how much we need other minds to help shore up our own. 

4. Acceptance

We need – too – a particular relationship to our anxiety: we must cease to torture ourselves with the hope that we will ever be fully well. We don’t need to compound our anxieties by assuming them to be temporary, and falling prey to disappointment whenever they return. 

This is a stubborn and long-term disease. We must learn to live graciously, even humorously, alongside it – reminding ourselves and those we care about of its ongoing claims upon us. There is a role for acceptance; we’ll have to spend a certain amount of time under the covers; some tasks will never be easy; we’ll have to feel like giving up more often than is fair; some days will be a write-off. We need no more hate ourselves for this infirmity than might someone suffering from rheumatism or lumbago. 

Our condition is a nuisance but not a curse; it is a sign of inner trouble, but not of evil; it can spoil our lives, it need not ruin them.

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