Anxiety Is a Choice

Anxiety Is a Choice


anxietyI’ve used anxiety most of my life. When it lifted the other day, I found myself walking through a forest in a state of no-worry. With every breath the trees got greener, and the birds seems to sing more sweetly.  I mean this literally. So this is what it’s like to not worry.

My intention when I went into a sacred ceremony was to try to get to the bottom of my anxiety. Here’s what I discovered: anxiety is a choice. I’m sure that it has multiple sources, but when people talk about existential or free-floating anxiety, I’m no longer buying it. It’s actually not a human quality. It’s a sign of trauma, an add-on that arises when overt or covert expectations are communicated before we are developmentally ready to meet those expectations.

Expectation can be our greatest ally or our worst enemy. One meaning relates to a condition of eager anticipation of an expected outcome. This is the basis for hope for something positive in the future, like being pregnant. As long as we’re not overly attached to outcomes living with expectation is a great resource. But the other meaning of expectation relates to the external expectations of others in authority about who we should be and how we should be in the world. Living up and into those expectations robs us of spontaneity and elicits anxiety if it is beyond our developmental capacity. The way we signal to our parents, for example, that we are wrestling with expectations that exceed our capacity, is shame. If our signals are ignored, anxiety sets in. We start to feel as though something catastrophic might happen if we cannot realize other people’s expectations. This is the exact opposite of the first meaning.

This is the source of most anxiety.

For example, if we picked up the non-verbal message (and we are experts at this) that we need to be other than our natural self (a good, behaved, quiet, or entertaining boy) to meet some kind of need in our parent(s), we learn that it’s not okay just to be ourselves. Or it could be that our unconscious knows that we are being called upon to to fill some kind of need in a parent that is not being met by his or her spouse  It is untenable because we can’t actually fix the problem, but if we don’t we believe that some kind of catastrophic event will result. This is not an exaggeration. We are being used instrumentally, as a means to an end, that has nothing to do with our own dignity and right to be our authentic self.  We are being asked to make something “better”, make ourselves better, make the feeling our parent is having, stop, but we don’t have a clue how to bring it off.

But we keep trying. And the way we keep trying is rumination, worry, and over-thinking. We lose the capacity to be present in the moment, because being present to our own experience might result in the sky falling in. We become “other-focused” and not in any kind of healthy way. We are other-focused as a gesture of vigilance, scanning the environment for potential sources of failure and shame—an survival mechanism.

Eventually (actually fairly quickly) we repress the source of our anxiety. We forget why are are anxious and it simply becomes a habit that we are unaware of. When the habit becomes entrenched the psychiatrists label it “anxiety disorder”. Enter big-pharma and the collusion with the medical system. Soon we’re hooked on some anti-anxiety drug or antidepressant.  Alternatively,  we can be  a high functioning, but highly anxious person. But our life is not our own. It’s being driven by external expectations. We are hooked on anxiety.

As children,because we couldn’t actually take any real action to “fix it” we came to substitute worry for action. That carries over into adulthood. We actually believe that anxiety is taking action on a problem.  Of course it isn’t, but remember, that old unconscious assumption is operative, making us believe that we’re doing something about the future by worrying. It’s really, really hard to believe (even though we get it rationally) that our worry is doing nothing, zero, nothing, and it’s actually making things worse. This is when we realize that we’re addicted to anxiety as a way of orienting in life — and it is actually destroying the quality of our experience.

I used to get huge anxiety when it’s my wife’s birthday or our anniversary. It was never a a joyful opportunity to express my love, but rather a test to see if I’m going to come through, or disappoint her (my fear). If I disappoint, the little boy in me feels like I won’t actually survive it. It will confirm that I am bad. I will feel shame. And I will over-buy and over deliver spending too much to cover all the possible bases. But it won’t have been joyful.

This absence of joy in engaging a task is a direct result of a belief system that is operating unconsciously. There is a feeling that I can’t bring it off. In the ceremony I realized the extent to which this belief system runs me. When we’re in the grips of unconscious external expectations life is a joyless meeting of perceived demands. We may “succeed” in meeting them, get a raise, a pat on the back, or praise, but it sucks life energy—and reinforces an orientation in life that will exhaust us by depleting our adrenal system. When the future is formed, on the other hand, from an internal and spontaneous sense of what is pleasurable for us, expectation as external demand is transformed into expectation as eager anticipation for an outcome we can’t wait to occur, or what you could call divine expectation—when we are in our creativity, composing our own life.

The first step as always is conscious awareness of what is driving us, admitting our unconscious fear and shame, feeling it, and then choosing, yes simply choosing, to end anxiety.

Paul, the mystic, who wrote much of the last part of the New Testament, experienced being “in Christ”. What this meant is that his life was no longer driven by external expectations (religious and cultural laws), but by the internal compass of love. “Do not worry, but in everything, let your requests be made known to G_d, and the peace of G_d which passes understanding will be in your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:6).

This isn’t merely an intellectual assertion. It is a direct experience that when we are experiencing our divine nature, we know that there is nothing to worry about. G_d is not a tyrant, expecting us to be more than who we are, but rather Loving One(ness) who sees our perfection, and wants us to simply express our authentic nature, with our one, precious life. It’s time to let go of anxiety, and rest, rest, rest in this knowing.

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Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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