Anxiety, Part 1

Anxiety, Part 1


For those of us who currently struggle with anxiety or had it in the past, we know what an awful affliction it can be. Not only can anxiety be physically painful, but it can also debilitate us and prevent us from moving forward with our lives in a productive manner. It can lead to things like depression, sleep troubles, addiction, social isolation, and problems at home, work, or school.

The intensity of anxiety can fall anywhere along a spectrum ranging from severe recurrent panic attacks to occasional low-grade nervousness. It is difficult to describe the visceral feeling of anxiety, but in general, it feels like an overall sense of dread, angst, worry, or dis-ease within the mind-body, and it can manifest symptoms such as tremors, restlessness, stomach or intestinal problems, difficulty breathing, physical tension, lethargy, and/or incessant mental chatter, among other things.

Many people today still hold the belief that anxiety is a sign of weakness; that it means someone isn’t mentally tough enough. Not only is this untrue, but to my knowledge, it does not seem to help those in the long-term struggling with anxiety. This “buck up” mentality comes from a general cultural stigma against mental illness, and from a misunderstanding about the real nature of anxiety. If we want to get to the bottom of anxiety and resolve its underlying causes, then the first step is acknowledging that it exists and that it can be a serious issue.

In the ever-growing field of psychology and mental health, I have come across varying definitions and explanations of anxiety. It seems that not everyone agrees about what causes it, let alone how to treat it! Since knowledge is power, in this article I will attempt to provide an understanding of anxiety from different perspectives and offer tools for managing and/or overcoming this pervasive condition. As you read below, remember to be kind with yourself. Nobody has ever resolved their anxiety with judgment or self-condemnation, only compassion.

 Fear of the Unknown

From the perspective of a behavioral psychologist, anxiety is defined as a fear or apprehension of some unknown external stimulus or future outcome. Essentially, while fear is categorized as a response to a known threat (i.e. a car swerving in front of you on the highway), anxiety is considered a response to an unknown threat or some looming potential danger (i.e. “I’m worried about losing my job.”). It is generally accepted that fear and anxiety, although unpleasant, are natural human responses to our environment. Protecting ourselves and planning ahead for all possibilities can be a sign of healthy pragmatism, and anxiety can be the jumpstart we need to prepare for our future. But if the anxiety becomes persistent and overwhelming, it may begin to impede normal functioning.

Hyperarousal of the Nervous System

In physiological terms, fear is seen as a biological and evolutionary adaptation for protecting us day-to-day. It activates the fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn (F4) response, which is also known as the acute stress response. This means that when we are faced with a potential or imminent threat, our sympathetic nervous system sends a cascade of hormones through the body to drive us to respond in one of four ways for our protection: either we resist, flee, freeze, or submit. However, if we are exposed to repeated threats, then activation of the F4 response becomes commonplace, our bodies become fatigued, and our brains receive the signal that we are in a perpetual state of danger. When this happens, a groove is created in the brain, and the F4 response is put on autopilot, leading to continual hyperarousal of the nervous system, i.e. anxiety. At this point, our brains are perceiving threats everywhere even where there are none. Treating anxiety from this perspective means retraining the brain and body to respond adaptively to the environment.


From a psychotherapeutic lens, anxiety can come from exposure to trauma. Trauma is generally defined as experiencing, witnessing, or hearing about a life-threatening situation, serious injury, neglect, or abuse of any kind. When we are exposed to a single major trauma and/or to repeated smaller traumas, we become vigilant to the fact that something like this might happen again, and that next time it could be worse. Thus, anxiety becomes a natural symptom of trauma, and reducing anxiety means working through the trauma.

Underlying Health Issue

From a medical perspective, anxiety could be the result of heart problems, breathing issues, withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, chronic pain, gastrointestinal ailments, or medication side effects. When dealing with anxiety, it is important to rule out any underlying medical conditions as potential factors.

Fear of Feelings

While the behavioral and physiological perspectives recognize anxiety as a response to an external stimulus, the psychoanalytic view sees anxiety as fear of an internal stimulus. Specifically, anxiety is the fear of our own feelings. As we go through life, our experiences activate certain feelings in us – love, joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, guilt, and shame. If we are afraid to feel certain emotions, or we dislike them, then we get anxiety. From this understanding, if we want to overcome our anxiety, then what we need to do is face our feelings. This may sound simple, but it isn’t always easy! Our feelings and emotions are powerful forces, and they often contain information about ourselves and our surroundings. Do we let them arise, or do we shut them down?

Defense Mechanisms

This is when we may use a defense mechanism to stop feeling. In other words, anxiety arises as a sign that we are feeling something we don’t want to feel, so it sends a signal to the subconscious mind to put up a defense. Bear in mind that all of this happens within seconds, so many of us are not even aware that we are doing it.

Psychological defenses are things like: Withdrawal – where we remove ourselves from situations that make us feel uneasy, or we get lost in our heads. Denial – where we ignore our feelings or deny that we are feeling at all. Projection – where we perceive that another person is feeling the way we feel so that we don’t have to acknowledge it. Control – where we try to control our surroundings to control our feelings. Somatization – where our feelings turn into physical symptoms, like stomachaches, headaches, inflammation, or pain. Acting Out – where we act out our feelings so we can get rid of them. Intellectualization – where we overthink so we don’t have to feel.

There are many kinds of defense mechanisms that people use to ward off their feelings. These are just the most basic ones, and we all use them to some degree in our lives. In fact, defenses can be helpful if our feelings are overwhelming; they allow us to function normally without getting bogged down. But if we are overusing our defenses, then they become an unhealthy subconscious habit and, in a vicious cycle, can actually start to create anxiety rather than stop it.

Triangle Of Conflict

David Malan’s “Triangle of Conflict”

Negative Beliefs

From a cognitive view, anxiety can come from negative beliefs we have about ourselves, or low self-esteem. Our negative thoughts can sometimes make us feel terrible. When this is the case, oftentimes we discover the presence of an inner critic – a voice in our heads eternally judging us, condemning us, or making us second-guess our choices and behaviors. We ruminate, wonder how anyone could love us, or worry about engaging in even the most harmless social situations. This kind of anxiety – whether it is social or about our value as a person – can come from the false beliefs that we are weak, unremarkable, or unlovable. In truth, each one of us is a powerful and unique individual full of love and potential. All we have to do is realize it.

Existential Disconnectedness

From a humanistic perspective, anxiety arises out of a fear of death, and by extension, a fear of life. In other words, anxiety occurs when we begin to question the meaning of our existence, or we forget ourselves as whole and complete beings, self-reliant and social. This kind of anxiety emerges when we feel detached from our humanity – disengaged from our surroundings, isolated from others, disconnected from our higher power, or confused about our life’s purpose. We may feel as if there is a dark cloud hovering over our heads. As a result of our existential malaise, anxiety can inform us that we have lost our way, and it can prod us to get back on the right track.

Identification with the Mind-Body

From a contemplative-spiritual perspective, anxiety is an inevitable result of our identification as ego-centric beings without a deeper nature. According to many contemplative teachings, our true nature is open and clear consciousness. In other words, we have a mind for thinking, a heart for feeling, and a body for acting, but we are aware presence. This means that the mind-body is not who we really are; it is not our true essence, only a part of it. This does not mean we neglect those aspects of ourselves. On the contrary, our mind-heart-body systems are important and useful tools for experiencing life in all its variety. However, anxiety appears when we identify with the mind-body only and not with our aware presence. As soon as we are able to let go of our limited identity and stop believing the thoughts and stories of the mind, we drop into presence and anxiety ceases.

…continued in Part 2…

Anxiety is a sign of the unspoken.
~ Jon Frederickson