What, really, is anxiety and were does it come from? What makes it vanish in a moment, only to come back, seemingly out of the blue, with the force of a tidal wave?
There are many answers to this question depending on who you ask. Kierkegaard says that it is unfocused fear. Modern psychology says it is an “exaggerated expectation of negative outcomes in an unknown situation, accompanied by physical symptoms.”
You know the feeling, and it sucks.
In a recent writing class, I asked students to write about what anxiety means to them and it’s clear that the condition of it is permeable, like a consciousness:
- Anxiety means being so far into the future in my head that I am predicting things but without any particular skills of divination.
- It’s being driven crazy with dread. What if this happens, what if that happens.
- Our cultural way of organizing time is anxiety incarnate. There’s never enough of it.
- It’s not being in control, and not having any hope that I will ever be in control.
- It’s not being able to connect the dots that make what is looming in the future known.
- Heart palpitations, racing thoughts, sweaty palms: a feeling that the human body just can’t contain all the mental and physical pressure.
- A literal brick wall plopped on the highway; a barbed wire fence strung across a garden, killing any meaningful arrangements.
Given that anxiety is a permanent human state, why do we spend so much time and effort trying to get rid of it, as if that is even possible? After all, it’s not as if the condition of uncertainty that most of us are dealing with in our daily lives is suddenly going to be magically fixed. We might be able to take a pill that will temporarily alleviate the horrible biochemistry that anxiety triggers, but there is very little peace and calm in the larger culture.
Not enough money, not enough time; feelings of lost potential, lost control; health problems and painful symptoms; the list goes on and on. And political candidates make ridiculous promises that they can fix all of these problems. But these problems become exaggerated when the standard we are comparing ourselves to is based on outdated concepts such as “security” and “perfect health.”
At this point, insecurity is the status quo and illness is a political critique. Neither one are mere complaints that can be “fixed” with a catch-all cure. In this this extremely confrontational and anxiety-ridden political climate, exaggerated expectations of negative outcomes are the cultural norm.
“Without cultural support, healing doesn’t last,” Dr. Mario Martinez observes, while cautioning us to be wary of attempting to heal ourselves within a culture that is itself so broken, and so sick.
The cure for anxiety? Stop looking for one within the dominant culture that is pretending that there is some “America” that we can “return” to where everything can be fixed. There is no El Dorado and looking for it will only produce more anxiety. In other words, anxiety is exaggerated by thinking that there is a singular concept/solution to world problems.
So what should we do? My personal solution is to implement what philosophers like Jonathan Lear suggest: collectively, let’s address the anxiety of living in the midst of these very fast paced and changing times by actually getting together and creating meaningful experiences. One thing the culture does provide are amazing and creative people who are actively building community within local places–from book clubs to yoga studies, public rituals to public art. There are many ways to find connection.
And as you do that, you can imagine that you are dissipating your anxiety into the larger collective sense of it. It’s not “your” anxiety — it’s everyone’s and you can release into the certainty that everyone is trying to balance on ground that is constantly shifting. This the way that tribal cultures, grounded on ideas of a collective consciousness, understood the function of dreaming.
“The path of the mystic is the path of chaos,” Martinez continues. In order to heal and survive, we need to take out the part of the equation that points towards there even being such a thing as the concept of solid ground.
So go ahead. Call yourself a mystic and join the community—after all, if you’re feeling anxious, you’re already one anyway.