The why of anxiety and the how of coping

How is it we learn to be anxious? Surely it’s rooted in our past, maybe even in our childhood: a teacher’s stinging reprimand, a parent’s rejecting scorn, unsuspecting betrayal by a friend, a passionate love not returned. We all carry wounds and though outwardly they heal, we trace the scars where the knife went in.  Anxiety flourishes when subsequent instances get past our defenses and replay the past.

Anxiety also takes hold when we face threats to our well-being, as in encountering a new geography, job, or intimidating individual, since we find safety in the familiar.  In extreme cases, it can develop into agoraphobia where leaving the house, for example, can trigger a panic response.  I have known such people in their trembling and labored breathing, and my heart swells with compassion.

Anxiety always pervades when we want something too much, forgetting every gain, even when achieved, is encumbered with the threat of loss. Life’s tendency, after all, is to lend rather than grant and to choose when to take back. Anxiety anchors itself in musts, when the true law of happiness is to discern what we can’t control and when it’s time to let go. I once met a woman who clung to a self-centered man, who often treated her badly. Though she knew the relationship was faulty, her anxiety for validation precluded her doing the right thing. Sometimes when we think we’re loving others we’re demanding love for ourselves. When love eludes us in our early years, we look for it repeatedly through others.

In matters of declining health, the scenario can become very scary and our imagination runs wild, rendering us hypochondriacs. It’s easy to become anxious when our bodies no longer respond as they used to and what we once found easy becomes more labored. Like our cars, our bodies take-on mileage and parts begin to break down. Declining health can nullify carefully laid plans and jeopardize our happiness. We help ourselves when we make lifestyle changes affecting diet, exercise, stress and sleep.

Related to the former, our greatest anxiety flows from wrestling with our mortality. When we’re young we give it little regard. As we grow older, we know the actuary tables don’t lie. Indeed, we feel it in our bones. Religion with its tenet of an afterlife capitalizes on the universality of such anguish. Life’s temporal nature can’t be altered, but its dividend is to teach us to value what truly matters. Accepting our mortality and doing what we can to enhance our health, while not easy, works like ginger tea on a nervous stomach.

Living life happily in a context of limitation takes a raw, every day courage, and I’ve met and often read of such people with admiration. It’s not that these heroes escape anxiety, but they”re not wallowing in it. I’m very fond of baseball, not because it’s exciting, which it often isn’t, but because of all the sports I like such things as the constant replay of the face-to-face duel between pitcher and hitter as an exemplum of grace under pressure. The pitcher needs the out; the batter needs the hit. Neither must flinch. I’ve known of players who lose their cool and whom anxiety masters, ending their stardom.

It’s easy to talk about freeing ourselves of anxiety. The trick is in knowing how. Psychology is built upon helping us find our way past worry and dread and sometimes it resorts to pills to help us through, when the truth is the answer lies within ourselves and not a pill that merely treats symptoms.   All anxiety is born of desire–whether for security, love, power, or fame.

To truly overcome anxiety requires our developing a sense of detachment and avoiding taking ourselves too seriously. Life needs to be lived in perspective. Wrong things, hurtful things happen, whether of man or nature’s making. The healing comes from not wanting anything overly, but living with acceptance of life’s rhythms one day at a time, doing what we can. Anxiety changes nothing, and often makes matters worse.

Living life free of anxiety is something akin to a would be swimmer, who before he can swim must first learn to float. It’s all in letting go.


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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