Just What Are You Afraid Of?

The term 'anxiety' sure gets a lot of airtime these days. In both its common and clinical uses, the word can mean many different things: a mild state of distress; a feeling of uneasiness; a general worry or specific fear; mild to intense panic; fear that the Republicans are leading us to authoritarianism; fear that the Democrats are leading us to authoritarianism; or a feeling of impending doom.

I take the approach that anxiety is nothing to be scared of, admittedly a weird position for a psychotherapist to take given that anxiety is inherently a state of fear.

We are living in what seems to be a very unsettled period, even for those of us on the planet not living in war zones. Goodness knows there are plenty of places where armed conflict is a daily part of life. There is frequent, enormous change and a great deal of uncertainty about the future. This onslaught of change can have the effect of keeping us in a state of psychophysiological turbulence. One of our simultaneous human gifts and curses is a strong ability to not be very clear about what's going on with us inside. We have the ability to rationalize, deny, and even dissociate. The latter is a state where a person does not experience something that is physically or emotionally present. A great example of a helpful physical dissociative talent is the ability to wear shoes and not know they are on. That works great if the shoes fit. What if they don't, and at the end of the day there's a blister that you didn't even know was there until you take off your shoes?

Here I am talking primarily about emotional types of sensations. In general, humans are remarkably capable of hiding and ignoring certain types of sensations, and the internal messaging system our feelings interact with relies heavily on internal sensory experiences. Just like any other skill, some people are better at hiding and suppressing feelings than others. At times suppression of feeling is a helpful, even necessary adaptation, but when used too often and unconsciously, it leaves the person susceptible to varying states of uneasiness. At the psychological level, anxiety is prompted and supported by keeping secrets about how one feels.

Why do people do this? There is significant variability about why people hide feelings from themselves and others. Some common reasons include:
Many of these ideas listed above are commonplace but not terribly helpful, and lead to a great deal of unnecessary pain. You have probably noticed that people have lots of feelings! My position is that we are not really in control of our feelings, and we cannot be responsible for our feelings in the same way we are responsible for our behavior. While there is some debate about the idea that feelings are not under our control, my personal and professional experiences point to the notion that while we are fully responsible for what we do in response to feelings, whether they show up in the first place is not so easily controlled or mandated. Since this may be a controversial idea to you, let me explain further.

I subscribe to the belief that we are absolutely responsible for our behavior. That is, after all, where the rubber meets the road in life. What do we do in relation to the world and other people—friends and foes? Someone may cut you off on the expressway while driving foolishly and even dangerously, and you may get really mad in a split second, long before you have a chance to thoughtfully consider what has happened, where you are, and what should be your next move. Hopefully, you have considered and practiced what constructive actions you can take when you find yourself really mad, because there is a good chance anger will show up at your doorstep at some point.

In my next blog I will go into more detail about how to handle these feelings over which we have no control. 
George Glaser George is a clinical social worker in private practice in Austin, Texas.

You Might Also Enjoy...