What is Anxiety and What is it Good For?

I am anxious today and I am thinking about the old piles of rusting tin roof panels that were beside the barn near the house I grew up in. The sheets of metal were grown over at the edges with smilax and in the sun they did not shine, they glared. A sharp flat light that hit the eyes hard.

The tin was sharp-edged and in some places it had rusted into thin hooks and ragged edges. Tetanus, black widows, snakes, a deep gash. These were the things my brother and I were warned of in regard to the big pile of tin by the barn.

We were not supposed to walk on the tin or play on the tin or go anywhere near the tin. Sometimes, however, we did. The sound was tremendous, a clattering and shuddering that made us brace ourselves for the next thundering step. 

The day here, years and years later, is a flat glaring grey. The birds are atonal and the cars seem loud, the sound of engines caught under dense clouds. 

Around the edges of my mind are the shivering clatters of old tin on old tin and my mouth tastes metallic, feels metallic.  

I am breathing somewhat shallowly, because it feels as if there is a great and pressing weight across my chest, like a lead blanket at the dentist. 

My hands are tingling.

I recognize that these are the effects of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol and all those others. Anxiety is a complex state which engages our cognitive, emotional, and physical experience in a network of cause and effect that can leave us gasping.

Anxiety has everything to do with Fear and fear provokes a powerful response in our old mammalian bodies, our modern American minds. For most of us, even talking about fear is frightening, so deep is our generalized wariness. For some of us, just the word Fear wakes it up in a slow bloom of sweat and a tensing of the shoulders, a scrambling of the mind.

The value of Fear is that it can inform us of things that may cause us harm. The problem with Fear is that we are, at this point, mightily confused about what is and is not harmful.

There is no question that some things are clearly harmful, a gunshot wound or a 2×4 about the head. Note how you feel even reading such phrases. 

However, there is, as we know, more to our lives than our bodies and their wounds.

What about harm that comes about when the core of who you are is challenged in such a way that the very youness of YOU is threatened?

Is it harmful to not be able to be yourself, or to be pushed to do things that you don’t want to do? Is it harmful to be pressured to “deny your own experience or conviction”?

You bet it is.

One of the things I often teach people is that when we act against our core values, we create a dissonant state. From this dissonant state, we may experience doubt, insecurity, anger, fear…all of which adds up to Anxiety.

I identify core values as the characteristics of heart that do not change, the current of our most true selves. When people have a difficult time identifying what they feel is best and most true about themselves, I sometimes suggest recalling oneself as a child. Who were you? Who we were then informs us of who we are now.

Often, people identify things such as Kindness, Compassion, Generosity, and Loyalty as being core values.

Thus, it could be reasoned, if one is placed in circumstances that conflict with core values such as these, if our lives do not support the expression of these values, it is likely that dissonance may arise.

Enculturated anxiety, that which is the result of living in a world that challenges us to be who we are not and to do things that we don’t believe in, creates a baseline state of trepidation and insecurity that primes us toward fear-oriented reactions to circumstances and facilitates a noxious fatigue of threat that undermines our spirit of self advocacy and leads us into compromising things that, for the integrity of self, perhaps should not be compromised.

Anxiety is a useful indicator. It can tell us that we are finding something amiss in our world and that we feel threatened. It can prompt us to consider where the threat lies and what, precisely, is making us so nervous.

The problem with anxiety is that it thoroughly affects our cognitve and emotive process, and can create a fear-oriented reality. Thus, in order to make use of anxiety as a tool of inquiry into what is and is not threatening to us within our lives, it is necessary to diminish the experience of fear in response to anxiety, because engaging in reactive fear tends to exacerbate anxiety in ways that disable reflective consideration. 

In a state of high fear, we tend toward reactivity rather than reflection. This is reasonable as the neurochemical indicators of high fear inform us that we are under threat and we are trying to stay alive. Typically, in such circumstances, people do not stop to consider what is frightening them under such circumstances, they are simply frightened and they are seeking safety.

Such seeking may be clumsy, disoriented, and emotionally reactive. It is for this reason that disengaging from fear is necessary in processing anxiety. 

How does one disengage from fear? The dialectical behavioral therapy skill of Observe and Describe has been helpful to me. How am I feeling? Why? Is there anything immediate to be frightened of? 

Am I scaring myself? 

Self-soothing techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are helpful in mitigating the physical effects of fear and in restoring equilibrium to our basic operations, our breath and our heartbeats. Walking, stretching, and yoga are also helpful in easing the physical effects of fear.

Writing through dissonance is a helpful process for me, as well. In fact, that is what I have done here today. I have observed and I have described and I have disengaged from that tinny  and clattering state of mind. There is no blanket on my chest.

There is nothing to be afraid of if I stand up for what I believe in and assert myself in who I am and what works or does not work for me. The thing about fear that is, to me, the most gripping is the sense of imminent loss – of self and of power. 

Fear itself takes our power and, when we learn to recognize fear for what it really is and identify the source of the dissonance, we can lessen anxiety and become more informed in who we are and how we are relating to the world. If we are existing in a way that threatens who we are, we are likely to feel anxious.

In our haste to reduce anxiety so that we can live our lives, we neglect to consider whether there may be some wisdom in our dissonance.

Are we really who we want to be? Are we being true to ourselves? Do we even know who are are in the midst of our own lives?  

These are not, in my opinion, questions that should be ignored.

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