Article by LiveReal Agents Grace, Thomas, and Courtney

Part I: What is anxiety? And what can we do about it?

Note: This is the long version of this article. For the short overview, click here.

Soren Kierkegaard once described anxiety as an “adventure.”

Anyone familiar with anxiety (which is probably all of us) might easily decide that Kierkegaard was insane, and that and his ideas were absurd.

After all, “adventures” are usually fun.

And anxiety is typically the exact opposite of fun.

Yet Kierkegaard is often considered to be very intelligent and perceptive by those who have put the effort into understanding what he was actually trying to say. (He was supposedly nicknamed "The Fork" because of his habit of spotting a weakness and sticking it to people.)

All of this points toward a basic idea: anxiety is a complex topic.

But it also doesn’t have to be overly complex.

It might be similar to something we understand fairly well.

Anxiety might work like lightning.

Humans once saw lightning as a force that was random, haphazard, and completely unpredictable.

With blasts of immense power and seeming fury, it would strike at various times and places for no apparent reason. It seemed magical or supernatural at first, like something that happened at the whim of gods such as Zeus or Jupiter.

But we eventually figured out a science behind lightning (electrons and so forth) – a new level of predictability, order, and reason that gave us deeper insight into it all.

We even experimented with and harnessed that understanding. We eventually invented lightning rods and even discovered electricity.

Is there a chance that anxiety could work the same way?

Today, we often see anxiety as a random, haphazard, unpredictable force.

The best we can do, it often seems, is avoid it, numb ourselves to it, perform various rituals to keep it at bay, or keep trying to concoct seemingly magical medicines and potions to make it mysteriously vanish.

But what if, instead, we could understand the “science” of it?

Is it possible that we could even harness it – like electricity – and turn it to our advantage?

That might seem a bit ambitious.

The “science of psychology” is still in its infancy.

But it also seemed like a difficult mission that was worth taking on.

This article is an endeavor in that direction.

We put together a plan.

The first phase of the plan was to find a trustworthy guide.

Then, we explored the topic – anxiety – from multiple perspectives.

Based on our findings, we then boiled the nature of anxiety down to seven words.

We then asked: “What can we do about it?” – and then boiled that down to ten words.

So, this article is long – but it could also be distilled down to 17 words.

This exploration is divided into three parts.

Part I: The Introduction
This discusses the way to approach the problem of anxiety and enlists a mentor for help.

Part II: Defining and Understanding Anxiety
This explores anxiety from several different angles and arrives at a concise summary.

Part III: An Answer, and What to Do

This article begins with the answer from the prior section and explores where to go from there.

The aim is to be thorough, but without being overly complicated, and clear, but without oversimplifying.

In that spirit, this article isn’t an academic paper for professionals. It’s by and for regular people who want more clarity and success when it comes to dealing with anxiety.

After all, anxiety can be a strange thing.

It can seem simple at first. We experience it, it’s miserable, and then we figure out how to deal with it the best we can. That’s it. It’s straightforward and familiar.

But if we look closer, we realize that it isn’t simple at all.

In fact, it’s pretty mysterious.

Where does this strange, invisible force come from? Is it pain, fear, stress, or something entirely different?

It’s another of those many things that are at the center of our experience of life, yet we hardly understand them.

When we try to understand anxiety, we can easily find ourselves wading through information that’s spectacularly unhelpful.

For example, asking about “the causes of anxiety” might result in such non-answers as “genetic factors, brain chemistry, and environmental factors” – answers that offer little insight, guidance, or clarity. “Answers” like these can sometimes give the impression that the topic is a dead end and isn’t worth exploring. Even worse, these non-answers can give the false impression that anxiety is incurable and permanent. They offer platitudes instead of understanding.

But understanding it is important.

For those who don’t want to merely endure anxiety, but overcome it, and achieve a degree of clarity, peace of mind, and sanity, there are key questions to answer.

Why does this strange experience seem to “come over” me? Where does it come from? Why do we feel it? Is it a “feeling” at all? What causes it? Why does it suddenly appear at some times and disappear at others? Is it in our control? What can we do about it? Is there an “answer” or “solution” to it? If so, what is it?

The questions are clear, but the answers are often muddy. Despite loads of studies, millions of dollars in grants, and tons of research, tangible progress in this area sometimes seems to have stalled or even reversed. Our approaches to the topic can even create more anxiety than they resolve.

Yet anxiety it’s hardly an abstract or merely academic topic.

We might drink or swallow pills to deal with it, avoid situations that seem to trigger it, or drown ourselves in distractions or busyness to avoid it. We might work ourselves to exhaustion in order to relieve it, or avoid work entirely as a way to avoid it.

In its mild forms, it’s often in the background. It surfaces rarely and is mostly ignored. In its worst forms, it can be an ongoing, profound, and relentless source of misery.

Like the sword of Damocles, dangling by a thread over the party, it’s often unseen while in clear view, threatening but ignored.

Its importance is hard to overstate, even if we don’t experience or think about it regularly.

Several serious thinkers have noted how important anxiety is.

For example, Freud described anxiety as a “riddle” – a riddle that, if solved, would illuminate everything else.

“There is no question that the problem of anxiety is a nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence.”
(from Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis)

And further:

“Anxiety is the fundamental phenomenon and the central problem of neurosis.”
(from The Problem of Anxiety)

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney said this:

“Anxiety is the dynamic center of neuroses, and thus we shall have to deal with it all the time.”

Kierkegaard wrote an entire book on the topic (The Concept of Anxiety), and said it well.

“This is an adventure that every human must go through – to learn to be anxious...
whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the most important thing...”

If something is described in these ways – as a “riddle” that’s the “center of neurosis” that can shed light “on our whole mental existence,” that can transform daily life into either a harrowing struggle to survive or an adventure – we should probably clarify.

What is it?

If we want to understand anxiety, we should try to define it clearly.

An initial definition often relates to fear, where anxiety is described as a state similar to fear.

But there’s a key difference: there seems to be nothing concrete and specific to be afraid of.

If a tiger or dangerous criminal were standing in front of us, we’d know what to be afraid of.

But with anxiety, there’s nothing specific present. There seems to be nothing “out there.” It’s “behind” us.

An invisible, unpredictable, shapeshifting enemy can seem impossible to fight.

Yet it’s very real. In fact, it can seem to grow and even feed on itself. We can become anxious about becoming anxious. Anxiety can lead to fear of more anxiety, which can lead to becoming anxious about becoming anxious, which can threaten to spiral indefinitely.

So, how can we get our hands around a problem like this?

The way we approach a problem sometimes makes solving it impossible.

Before we dive into a problem this complex, we need a plan of attack. How we tackle it can make all the difference.

There’s a common error and a key mistake that often enters the picture here.

(Note: to skip this “how to approach” section and move ahead to the approach itself, click here or go to “Part II: Rollo May on the Meaning of Anxiety below.)

That mistake lies in approaching the topic from only one angle.

For example, some approach anxiety only from the perspective of biology.

They assume that anxiety is solely a physical “disorder” of the brain and proceed forward from there.

Based on that unexamined assumption, they try to understand and explain anxiety solely with the tools of biochemistry and physiology. As a result, they further assume that the only valid treatment is biochemical and pharmaceutical. And so, they limit themselves to a narrow approach that offers only a partial view and partial solution.

Results such as these are predictable logical consequences of initial assumptions. The initial assumptions can often determine everything that follows. Since they imagine and presume that physical brains are the sole “cause” of the problem, drugs are, therefore, the sole solution.

But this approach rests on certain unspoken and unexamined ideas.

It makes several assumptions that are rarely stated out loud.

For example, this approach assumes a worldview or life philosophy of materialism. (“Materialism” here is the basic worldview that “only physical matter is real,” and less tangible things like “thoughts,” “minds,” “souls,” or even “selves” aren’t real.)

It’s a philosophical claim.

Or, put differently, the idea that "only physical things are real" is a metaphysical assertion.

It isn’t “science.”

Science hasn’t proven that approaches based on the worldview of materialism are the only correct ones. No scientific experiment has ever proven this, or can prove it. No scientific experiment can prove that the only valid way to know reality is through scientific experiments. That circular epistemology encloses us in a closed, self-reinforcing knowledge loop. It’s a set of mental blinders.

Importantly, the idea itself is rarely articulated clearly or spoken out loud, instead being merely implicit or assumed. Yet the entire materialistic approach is based on it, like the foundation or skeleton on which everything else is built.

It becomes a form of reductionism.

For example, this kind of approach often reduces anxiety down to the claim that it’s nothing but the effect of brain chemistry.

But this can be like claiming that a painting is “nothing but” oils on a canvas, or that a novel is “nothing but” a bunch of arranged letters on a page, or a movie is “nothing but” a bunch of lights projected onto a screen. It’s not entirely inaccurate, but it’s a view from a very narrow perspective that ignores much bigger and more important parts of the picture. It explains a small, partial, narrow fragment while pretending to explain everything.

The point here isn’t to say that the physical brain plays no role whatsoever or that all drugs should be avoided. The physical brain can be important, and drugs can sometimes help.

The error lies in only approaching the matter from a single perspective.

It can be like trying to examine a house solely by looking through a keyhole. The view is limited.

If the problem of anxiety is like a fortress, some insist on attacking only from the south, others only from the north, east, etc.

But anxiety is a big enough problem that it can’t be understood from one single approach.

To really understand it, we need to attack from all sides.

Some try to understand anxiety by way of psychotherapy. Others study it exclusively from the perspective of biochemistry. Others view it as a purely theological or spiritual matter. Others view it as a sociological problem, as a result of personal relationship dynamics, and so on.

All of these approaches can yield insights. But none, by themselves, tell the whole story. Like the blind men and the elephant, each of them only draws a partial picture.

The more comprehensive approach aims to see the whole picture of anxiety.

For this, we need a trustworthy guide.

Although his work is easily lost in deluge of the information age, one thinker examines anxiety from multiple perspectives and works to integrate them into one comprehensive whole.

His name is Rollo May.

May explores the topic in depth in his 432-page book The Meaning of Anxiety.

This book will be our road map to help us navigate this terrain.

The Meaning of Anxiety serves in part as a summary of many perspectives. This article is a summary of a summary. Neither are exhaustively detailed or comprehensive. The objective, however, isn’t detail, but a 10,000-foot view to keep details in a proper perspective.

(All quotes below are from it unless otherwise noted.)

Here’s a brief glimpse of what’s ahead.

This Introduction is Part I.

Part II is a brief overview of May’s explorations.

May examines anxiety from seemingly all sides. He looks from the perspectives of:

- literature
- social studies
- politics
- theology
- philosophy
- neurology and physiology
- psychology
- biology
- psychotherapy
- culture

This process of examining the topic from multiple angles results is a much richer, more informed, and more comprehensive view. But when taken too far, it can also become overwhelming. It can result in numerous "on the one hand, this - but on the other hand, that" situations that lead to everything seeming disjointed and disconnected.

May then solves this problem by synthesizing these multiple perspectives into one comprehensive whole. He converges on a single approach that takes each of them into account, resulting in a wide-ranging “meta-perspective” or a “theory of everything, anxiety version.”

He then boils it down to a single phrase.

That phrase serves as a condensed summary of his analysis on anxiety and its meaning, taking everything up to that point into account.

We’ll unpack that phrase and examine it more closely in Part III.

The hope is that this will leave us with a clearer and deeper understanding of anxiety, as well as a course of action that offers not just relief, but a way to become saner, happier, and stronger.

The below is “the long version” of this exploration on anxiety. A highly condensed “short version” is available here. It’s essentially a summary of a summary of a summary.

Here we go.

Part II: Rollo May on the Meaning of Anxiety

May opens the discussion by pointing out how recent times overall have become more fraught with anxiety.

It wasn’t always like this.

May wrote in the mid-twentieth Century. He discusses how, over the past several decades, something has changed. Anxiety has become increasingly prominent. It’s “shifted from a covert to an overt problem” and has grown into “a pervasive and profound phenomenon.”

From here, he examines anxiety from multiple perspectives, or “through the lens of” several disciplines.

He looks through the lens of:

Social Studies
Psychotherapy, and

He arrives at a solid conclusion about the central importance of anxiety. “In neurotic patterns…anxiety is the primary etiological phenomenon.” (Since etiology is the study of causes or origins, the phrase could be rewritten as, “Anxiety is the cause or origin of neurosis.”) May says as much: “In this sense anxiety is the psychic common denominator of all disease as well as of all behavior disturbances.” (216)

Anxiety from the Perspective of Literature

May first focuses on five authors who have focused on anxiety, either directly or indirectly. According to them, we often “occupy ourselves with symptoms of anxiety rather than with overt anxiety itself.” They also describe the problems without offering solutions.

Thomas Wolfe’s “homelessness”
A certain mood is present in the writings of Wolfe: “the pronounced sense of loneliness, the quality of persistent searching – frantically and compulsively pursued, but always frustrated…” There’s a “feeling of homelessness.” The title of one of his most prominent novels was You Can’t Go Home Again. Anxiety can mean a sense of people not feeling “at home” in the universe, where life has become strange and alienating.

W. H. Auden’ “Age of Anxiety”
Auden entitled one of his poems The Age of Anxiety. It’s set in the time of war, when ‘necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom.’ He makes it clear that “the underlying causes of the anxiety of his characters, as well as of others of that age, must be sought on deeper levels than merely the occasion of war.” There’s the possibility that they will be drawn into a “mechanical routine of meaninglessness.” The characters have certain “characteristics of our times” in common:
- loneliness
- the feeling of not being of value
- the experience of not being able to love and be loved
- the relief provided by alcohol

Albert Camus, “The Century of Fear”
Albert Camus compares the current age to earlier centuries – the ages of mathematics (17th century), the age of the physical sciences (18th Century), the age of biology (19th Century), and the 20th as the “century of fear.” Throughout his prominent works, such as The Stranger, The Plague, and The Myth of Sisyphus, he explores such topics as alienation, absurdity, and meaninglessness.

Franz Kafka, “The Castle”
In The Castle, a character arrives at a village, hoping to arrange a meeting with some unknown authority figures who live in a castle. He hopes those authorities will offer him guidance. Throughout the story, “the chief character devotes his life to a frantic and desperate endeavor to communicate with the authorities in the castle who control all aspects of the life of the village, and who have the power to tell him his vocation and give some meaning to his life. But the authorities in the castle remain inscrutable and inaccessible, and Kafka’s character is left without direction or integration in his own life and remains isolated from his fellows…” This predicament – finding oneself in an absurd situation that makes no sense and is immune to all efforts to find clarity, meaning, or satisfaction – also forms the frameworks for The Trial and The Metamorphosis. (Note: we could interpret these stories as a view of life amid “The Death of God” or the “loss of myth” which gives rise to a sense of absurdity and meaninglessness. It takes place within a worldview of deism, where some sort of “God” exists but is hopelessly distant, impersonal, and inaccessible.)

Herman Hesse
In Steppenwolf, the protagonist is experiencing a sense of isolation and loneliness. He initially tries to overcome this by way of a rationalistic, mechanical ‘balance.’ But this approach comes at a price: the suppression of the dynamic, irrational elements in experience. So, he decides on a new approach of giving free rein to his previously suppressed sensuous and irrational urges – the ‘wolf.’ But this offers only temporary relief, and ultimately fails. So, Hesse – along with every other writer he mentions – “presents no thoroughgoing solution to the problem of the anxiety of contemporaneous Western man…”

Anxiety from the Perspective of Social Studies

May describes “The Lynd Studies” – two studies of a small town that revealed rising large-scale anxiety decades ago.

“In the first study, made in the 1920s, anxiety is not an overt problem…the topic does not even appear…”

“But the later study of the same community made in the 1930s presented a very different picture. Conscious anxiety is now present. ‘One thing everybody in Middletown has in common,’ the Lynds observed, ‘is insecurity in the face of a complicated world.’ The citizen of Middletown…’is caught in a chaos of conflicting patterns, none of them wholly condemned, but no one of the clearly approved and free from confusion; or, where the group sanctions are clear in demanding a certain role of a man or woman, the individual encounters cultural requirements with no immediate means of meeting them.” This is seen as “one expression of the pervasive social changes occurring in our culture, which…were intimately connected with the widespread anxiety of our times.” (9)

The Lynds observed that “most people are incapable of tolerating change and uncertainty in all sectors of life at once.”

May then references researcher Robert J. Lifton.

Lifton describes the rise of anxiety as related to “pervasive social changes.”

This can be influenced – strangely enough – by a certain open-mindedness. On the one hand, “going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another way of religion” can broaden one’s mind and perspective. It can pass itself off as empathy or a kind of cultural sophistication where someone transcends humble origins.

But this also risks a potential dark side. The sheer multiplicity of possibilities can generate anxiety. It’s possible to get lost amid multiple perspectives and essentially “lose oneself.” (Ken Wilber would call this “aperspectival madness.”) It can even devolve into “oikophobia,” where self-awareness degenerates into self-rejection.

Lifton illustrates this dynamic using the Greek myth of Proteus.

In the classic Greek myth, Proteus was able to change his shape “’from wild board to lion to dragon to fire to flood…But what he could not do, unless seized and chained, was to commit himself to a single form.’ This drive to don a number of masks, to be in incessant change, to reflect continuously the environment, with no idea of ‘where I belonged and no idea of myself,’ as one young modern protean put it, bespeaks a dizzily changing cultural situation.” Proteus is a kind of archetype of today’s ”Protean Man.”

The reaction to this can be what Lifton describes as “numbing,” a “defense” that’s “an emotional withdrawal in which people who can do nothing else dull their sensitivities, cut off their awareness of threat” and which “seems to work temporarily in the warding off of anxiety.”

Anxiety from the Perspective of Politics

Anxiety plays a central role in creating both fascism and communism, as May describes:

“[Fascism] is born and gains its power in periods of widespread anxiety.”

He quotes Paul Tillich, who experienced firsthand the rise of German fascism in the 1930s.

“First of all, a feeling of fear or, more exactly, of indefinite anxiety was prevailing. Not only the economic and political, but also the cultural and religious, security seemed to be lost. There was nothing on which one could build; everything was without foundation. A catastrophic breakdown was expected every moment. Consequently, a longing for security was growing in everybody. A freedom that leads to fear and anxiety has lost its value; better authority with security than freedom with fear!”

May says, “In such periods, people grasp at political authoritarianism in their desperate need for relief from anxiety.”

The same dynamic plays out both in the individual and on a larger societal scale:

“…people grasp at political authoritarianism in their desperate need for relief from anxiety. Totalitarianism in this sense may be viewed as serving a purpose on a cultural scale parallel to that in which a neurotic symptom protects an individual from a situation of unbearable anxiety.”

May mentions Herbert L. Matthews, who said “Fascism was like a jail where the individual had a certain amount of security, shelter, and daily food.”

But he also refers to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who said, “[Communism] has filled the ‘vacuum of faith’ caused by the waning of established religion; it provides a sense of purpose which heals internal agonies of anxiety and doubt.”

He goes on: “Anxiety in the situation is increased by the fact that there is no clear-cut villain, no ‘devil’ on which to project our fears.”

An external villain can serve as a kind of “release valve” that offers relief to internal tension. When there is no external villain, and anxiety isn’t resolved in a healthy way, there can be a need to invent one.

Anxiety from the Perspective of Theology

Paul Tillich described anxiety as “man’s reaction to the threat of nonbeing.”

This sounds abstract and ominous, but the basic idea is simple: “Man is the creature who is self-consciously aware of his being, but he is also aware that at any moment he might cease to be.”

In this sense, “anxiety arises as the individual is aware of being as over against the ever-present possibility of non-existence.”

This parallels Kierkegaard’s description of anxiety as the “fear of nothingness.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, like Kierkegaard (and later Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death), sourced anxiety in the fact that “man is, on the one hand, finite…But, on the other hand, man has freedom…In short, man, being both bound and free, both limited and limitless, is anxious. Anxiety is the inevitable concomitant of the paradox of freedom and finiteness…” (15)

These approaches converge on the perspective that human nature lies at the meeting point of opposing forces, and psychospiritual health lies in reconciling those forces.

Anxiety from the Perspective of Philosophy

May introduces the philosophical approach to anxiety as the “rationalistic solution to the problem of man.” Philosophers tend to employ reason, which leads to some unsurprising conclusions.

First, May features Spinoza, who envisioned “reason overcoming fear.”

Spinoza (1632-1677) imagined “…a new ethics…a mathematical theory of the moral world,” in the sense that “one should be as certain about an ethical problem as one is about a proposition in geometry.” His basic approach was to deal with fear by way of mathematical reason. The more we endeavor to live under the guidance of reason, he claimed, the less we depend on hopes, fears, and other non-rational or “irrational” forces. In brief, he had confidence that reason can dispel anxiety.

If only things were that simple, that "The solution to anxiety is to just be reasonable."

Secondly, May features Pascal and “the inadequacy of reason.”

Pascal (1623-1662), in contrast to Spinoza, didn’t believe that human nature could be comprehended by mere intellectual reason or mathematical rationalism alone. One of his most famous quotes was an appreciation of something outside of the intellect or beyond the reach of reason: the heart: “The heart has reasons which the reason knows not of.” We can be rational, but there are limits to reason.

In this sense, Pascal “sounds to us like a contemporary, while Spinoza sounds like a man from a different age.”

He noted anxiety directly as the “perpetual restlessness in when men pass their lives,” the “unceasing endeavors of people to divert themselves, to escape ennui, to avoid being alone,” the great bulk of diversions which he felt were actually efforts to avoid “thoughts of themselves,” – for if they should pause for self-contemplation, they would be miserable and anxious.

May noted that Pascal was an exception in addressing anxiety directly in comparison to others of his age. This was possibly in part because of the phase of history he was living in, which included the widespread belief in “the ability of reason to master Nature,” as Pascal suggested.

“I suggest that the cultural position in which Spinoza and the other thinkers of this…period found themselves did not result in the inner trauma which was about to occur to comparable intellectual leaders in the nineteenth century and to vast numbers of people in the twentieth century. The central belief in the power of autonomous reason gave a psychological unity to the culture which was not to be threatened with serious disintegration until the nineteenth century.”

Finally, May features Soren Kierkegaard and the “school of anxiety.”

May describes The Fork (Kierkegaard) as producing “the most direct, and in some ways the most profound, study of anxiety to appear up to that point in history.” In that sense, he (Kierkegaard) was a pioneer. Since a comprehensive summary of his thought isn’t possible here, what follows is a brief sketch of his conclusions, which lay out like a series of interconnected insights and arguments.

To start: Kierkegaard’s “central problem” is “how a person can will to be himself.”

“To…be himself is man’s true vocation.”

This seems straightforward enough. Yet, it also opens the possibility of not becoming oneself.

This all takes place within a context of freedom (or “possibility.”) This freedom is bound tightly with anxiety.

A toddler, for example, has the freedom to learn how to walk (the potential or possibility of walking). Freedom means a possibility can become actual – or not. The potential to walk can become the reality of walking – or not.

It’s possible to fear something specific, concrete, and objective, like a tiger. But is it possible for us to fear possibility itself? Kierkegaard would answer “yes” – there can be a “fear of freedom” or “fear of possibility.” Like a sense of awe, this experience can be both captivating and dreadful. Anxiety, then, becomes a “seeking after adventure, a thirst for the prodigious, the mysterious,” and is connected with “sheer possibility.” When the element of self-awareness is added here, as well as conscious choice, “There occurs a heightened sense both of the portentous nature of possibility and the responsibility that goes with it.” What’s my life story? It might go very well – or not. That sense – that things could go very well or very poorly, and the result is unknown – produces anxiety.

In this sense, anxiety is not a “disorder.” The mere presence of anxiety is perfectly natural.

Today, we often imagine that the mere presence of anxiety is a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” We sometimes tend to assume that a healthy human life should be perfectly anxiety-free, and anything less than that indicates that something has gone wrong. In that way, we “pathologize” ourselves.

But this is a misreading of the situation. It means we’ve taken a perfect, naturally occurring feature of human nature and converted it into a disorder or problem that needs to be fixed. This perspective isn’t the full picture.

This means some anxiety is perfectly natural.

But what about anxiety that isn’t natural?

Natural anxiety turns to toxic anxiety (or “neurotic anxiety,” as May calls it) due to “the individual’s failure to move ahead in situations of normal anxiety.”

What does that mean? An individual is confronted with freedom or “possibility.” This situation means things are unknown – they could go very well, or not. In this state, there’s both an attraction and repulsion at the same time, both a desire for (toward) and fear of (away) the same thing. It’s like having one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake: there’s a simultaneous wanting-to-move-toward and a wanting-to-move-away-from. (Kierkegaard’s phrase is “a sympathetic antipathy” or its reverse, an antipathetic sympathy.) There is not only a desire to actualize possibilities, but “there is in him a wish not to actualize his possibilities.”

There is, in other words, inner conflict.

In this situation, a person can become paralyzed in a dilemma. “Anxiety then makes the individual impotent.”

Kierkegaard would describe “the difference between the ‘neurotic’ and ‘healthy’ state by saying that the healthy individual moves ahead despite the conflict, actualizing his freedom. The unhealthy person, on the other hand, retrenches to a ‘shut-in’ condition, sacrificing his freedom.”

This takes the form of “shut-upness” – “a graphic term for the process of blocked awareness, inhibition, and other common neurotic reactions to anxiety…” which can take the form of “dread of the good.” Whereas “freedom is constantly communicating…unfreedom becomes more and more shut-up and wants no communication…” but instead wants “…withdrawal and…continual negation.”

This brings us back again to the central problem: how to become oneself.

Becoming oneself “depends upon the individual’s capacity not to hide from anxiety, but to confront it and move ahead despite it.”

Anxiety, in this sense, is a challenge to be overcome, a problem to be solved.

“…anxiety indicates the presence of a problem which needs to be solved; and…anxiety will dog the steps of the individuals…until it is resolved. But on the other hand…’self-strength’ develops out of the individual’s successful confronting of anxiety-creating experiences. This is the way one becomes educated to maturity as a self.”

In this sense, Kierkegaard describes anxiety as a “school.”

Anxiety can be a “teacher.” It’s “a source of education” that is always present “because one carries it within.” “In such confronting of anxiety the individual is educated to faith, or inward certitude…” – or as we might say today, to “confidence” or even “psychological health.”

Yet this “teacher” can be either friendly or stern. If we do our homework and learn the lessons, things go well. If we don’t, things become problematic.

And we often do everything we can to avoid doing our homework – to avoid anxiety. This takes the form of distraction. Kierkegaard speaks of his “cowardly age” in which “one does everything possible by way of diversions…”

This can rob us of the “teacher” or the lessons we need to learn.

But what “lessons,” exactly?

This “teacher” challenges us with the task of “facing and accepting the human situation frankly. It means facing the fact of death…”

“Facing the fact of death” might sound grim. But if Kierkegaard is correct, paradoxically, it’s the doorway to psychological health.

“In such confronting of anxiety the individual is educated to faith, or inward certitude. Then one has the ‘courage to renounce anxiety without any anxiety, which only faith is capable of – not that it annihilates anxiety, but remaining ever young, it is continually developing itself out of the death throes of anxiety.”

Kierkegaard praises Socrates as a role model here. Socrates was wrongly prosecuted and sentenced to death, and yet – according to Plato – willingly and cheerfully drank the poison his sentence required. And as Kierkegaard describes, he “solemnly flourished the poisoned goblet…as a patient says to the surgeon when a painful operation is about to begin, ‘Now I am ready.’ Then anxiety enters into his soul and searches it thoroughly, constraining out of him all the finite and the petty, and leading him hence whither he would go…”

As May describes, “Kierkegaard is proclaiming that ‘self-strength’ develops out of the individual’s successful confronting of anxiety-creating experiences. This is the way one becomes educated to maturity as a self.” (46)

Anxiety from the Perspective of Biology

Biological approaches to anxiety attract a great deal of attention today, as mentioned earlier. Biology has the trappings of hard science (in contrast to seemingly mushier discussions about “minds” and “souls” in “soft science”) that some find attractive.

While the emphasis might be overblown, the approach isn’t entirely mistaken. Drugs that affect the thyroid, for example, can generate anxiety on a purely biological level.

The problem isn’t that the biological approach is wrong, exactly, but that it becomes dysfunctional when we use it incorrectly. Biology is one piece of a larger puzzle. It becomes wrong when it’s treated as the entire puzzle.

What’s often lacking in conversations about the role of biology in anxiety is the larger picture of how we approach the problem, or where the biological elements fit in to the rest, as mentioned above. Biological approaches often present details from a materialistic worldview in ways that exclude a broader context. This results in a fragmented, piecemeal patchwork of ideas that don’t fit into a coherent whole.

More studies or research won’t solve this problem. The challenge isn’t mere data, but a way to organize the avalanche of data that’s being generated by a flood of studies.

May describes:

“…a great number of researches into relatively isolated phases of neurology and physiology. Each of these researches is like an individual brick to be used in the building of a house. But where is the design for the house? Where, in other words, is the synthesis, the integration, the pattern into which all these discrete bricks are to be placed?”

He continues:

“Our great need…is for an integrating design which will bring…some ‘order and lucidity into the field. Our heterogeneous, isolated, segmented knowledge has vastly increased; our understanding of anxiety as a whole has scarcely increased at all.”

The “integrating design” is what May proposed in his book (and what this article aims for as well.)

One example May mentioned was Eugene E. Levitt, who claimed in 1969 that he had found “the chemical source of anxiety,” consisting of high concentrations of lactate in the blood. “This was announced as a ‘breakthrough.’” It later proved to be less than the breakthrough Levitt thought it was. Many “breakthroughs” along these lines get discovered, hyped, and forgotten, after which a new one takes its place, and another, and so on.

This results in continually “looking for love in all the wrong places” or looking for the solution to anxiety in places it will never be found. May describes the futility of this approach:

“…the ‘cause’ of a condition of life like anxiety can never be found in an isolated neurological or physiological reaction.”

So, if the cause of anxiety can never be found with this approach – what, then, is the solution?

May suggests an integrated approach (which he takes in the book).

“What is necessary is a new pattern which will include all the different approaches.”

To further drive the point home, May focuses on a researcher – Kurt Goldstein – who began investigations from a “hard science” biological perspective on anxiety, but later discovered the need to broaden his approach.

Goldstein focused on “the startle pattern.”

As Goldstein describes, a sudden, loud noise can lead to a reaction of being “startled.” From that starting point, he deduced an entire system of anxiety, where an initial startle becomes a more generalized pattern that translates across other situations.

Goldstein eventually moved from purely biological approaches to the philosophical and even theological. His research eventually resulted in a conclusion similar to Kierkegaard’s – that of “…moving through rather than away from anxiety…” He affirmed the need for courage, which “…in its final analysis, is nothing but an affirmative answer to the shocks of existence.” So, Goldstein evolved from “hard biology” to what is essentially a “virtue.” Not all researchers evolve, preferring instead of stay fixed on the purely physical.

To make the point even further, May soon refocuses on the neurological and physiological aspects of anxiety.

He mentions the role of, for example, the automatic and autonomic nervous systems, things like accelerating heartbeat, blood pressure, adrenalin, the “cold sweat,” the shiver, rapid breathing, dilation of the pupils (“eyes wide with fear”), the liver releasing sugar, the hypothalamus, thalamus, cerebral cortex, and reticular activating system of the brain, and so on. He later explores “voodoo death,” psychosomatic aspects of anxiety, how cultural factors help us interpret diseases, and so on.

As May describes, all of this depends on psychology’s answer to philosophy’s ongoing and seemingly unending debate over the “mind/body problem.” Unfortunately, psychology departments often tend to stay away from philosophy departments.

As a result, some psychologists simply assume a simple answer to this problem (e.g. “the mind is nothing but the body,” or vice versa), or they try to skip over the problem entirely. But it’s a philosophical problem. As May says:

“…we need to move toward an integrated theory of mind-body…”

- and he even proposes where to look for this:

“…which will presumably be found by going back to the dimension out of which both mind and body arise.”

May refers to “one approach that seeks to do this” as the work of Adolph Meyer.

Meyer described a “hierarchy of organization of the organism.” This approach echoes the later work of Huston Smith, Ken Wilber, Sri Aurobindo, or among numerous others, The Perennial Psychology, for example, which describes a “hierarchy of organization” that major spiritual and philosophical traditions largely agree on. In this approach, the physical, emotional, mental, and soul (or “consciousness”) levels interpenetrate and work together, and point toward a whole, integrated view of human nature.

There’s clearly plenty to explore and discover in these areas. That said, an increasing number of researchers are pointing out the drawbacks of an approach that tacitly assumes a materialistic worldview and then looks for solutions exclusively within that framework.

Freud himself said it well:

“I know of nothing less important for the psychological comprehension of anxiety than a knowledge of the nerve-paths by which the excitations travel…”

We can drive without knowing how an engine works, and we can run without knowing all of the physiological mechanics of how knees and ankles work. We can also seek to understand anxiety without necessarily mapping each of its physical manifestations.

Aspects of biology, neurology, and physiology shouldn’t be ignored. But we also shouldn’t presume that they tell the entire story. The results from this approach are dehumanizing.

Anxiety from the Perspective of Psychology

Psychology seems like the obvious field to study anxiety. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

Psychology strives to be a hard science. Yet hard science focuses on what can be quantified, observed, measured, replicated, peer-reviewed, and so on.

Yet anxiety is almost exactly the opposite. As experienced by the individual, it’s subjective, invisible, immeasurable, unquantifiable, unrepeatable, and so on. When researchers try to measure anxiety, they often wind up with things like fear and stress, not anxiety.

This doesn’t mean anxiety is entirely outside of the realm of psychology. It means instead that it is primarily explored by therapists and psychotherapists, as explored below.

Does that mean that anxiety can’t be studied in “hard science” ways?

Efforts along these lines are revealing. For example, they’ve explored the question of whether animals have anxiety. May’s answer? Not really. What they actually have is a state of heightened alertness or “vigilance” – but not anxiety. There have been efforts to research children’s fears, for example, and whether they’re rational (based on real experiences) or imaginary (based on ghouls, witches, goblins, etc.) May concluded – and verified personally with researchers – that their data could be explained by anxiety, not fear, and so the observable results pointed back to unobservable anxiety.

May further explores a developmental approach to various fears that mask anxiety which, once again, offer glimpses but not clear views. Other approaches strive to measure anxiety, but wind up measuring stress. Stress, as May describes,

“…seems to have become popular in psychology because it can be defined readily, handled easily, and generally measured satisfactorily, all of which are difficult with the term ‘anxiety.’”

But the term “stress” originated with engineering and physics, where a bridge can be under mathematically precise “stress” based on the weight it’s holding.

Stress is its own field. Further, we often mistakenly assume that all stress should be avoided, as if a happy life is stress-free.

But that isn’t the case. For example, May mentions a key observation: during an incredibly stressful time – Great Britain during WWII, amid bombing and austerity – “there was a clear diminution of neurosis.” During periods of stress, people can often become stronger. As May says:

“When there is great stress there may be freedom from anxiety.”

This insight can be critical to separating stress from anxiety and the important distinctions between the two. A life can be chock-full of action and important activities – which might look stressful and anxious to an outsider – yet be free of anxiety.

A key is how the individual experiences and describes the stress.

“Anxiety is how the individual relates to stress, accepts it, interprets it. Stress is a halfway station on the way to anxiety. Anxiety is how we handle stress.”

May concludes his analysis by highlighting the elusive and slippery nature of anxiety that so often escapes the methods of hard science.

It’s not for lack of effort. For example, May described the “indefatigable” efforts of Charles Spielberger who worked “to bring together major contributors to the field in several symposia…” This led to the publication of “seven volumes of research.”

Whether anyone has ever read those seven volumes is a fair question to ask. But this points to May circling back again to one of his key arguments.

“Although these studies have contributed to our understanding of aspects of anxiety, they create an even greater need for an integrated theory of the meaning of anxiety.”

As Ernest Becker would later say very well, “knowledge is in a state of useless overproduction.” Studies crank out globs of data with the assumption that someone, somewhere, will later interpret it, make sense of it, and fit it in with the flood of other globs out there. That second, disregarded, and often thankless task is what May (and a few others) take on.

Again, many psychologists want psychology to be seen as “hard science” instead of “soft,” mushy speculations. But the harder the science gets on these topics, the more it seems to capture the trivial and miss the essential.

May mentions the work of O. Hobart Mowrer as a case study.

Mowrer began as a “staunch behaviorist,” the hardest of the hard scientists in the field of psychology. But his interest in anxiety led him to the study of learning (or “learning theory”), which then led him to clinical psychology (to understand the problem of how and why rats learn delinquent behavior), and eventually led – in the late stages of his career – to “problems of time, symbols, and ethics” in order to study such matters as “guilt and responsibility.”

Again, some tough-minded materialists follow the trail of clues and eventually wind up in the windy fields of philosophy and even theology. (Ernest Becker shared a roughly similar story - starting with the most obvious, concrete, and brutal fact of death and winding up at the intersection of psychology and theology.)

May concludes this section with the observation that “the most fruitful researches for illuminating this area have been those which employed clinical procedures along with experimental techniques” and that “most of the significant data on anxiety comes from the psychotherapists – Freud, Rank, Adler, Sullivan, and others…”

This leads us to explore the findings of psychotherapy.

Anxiety from the Perspective of Psychotherapy

May tours the thinking of several major psychoanalytic thinkers, starting with Freud.

He begins with Freud’s speculations on the connection of anxiety with “repression.” He then continues to Freud’s contemporaries as well as several “neo-Freudians” and their positions on anxiety: Otto Rank on anxiety’s relation to “individuation,” Alfred Adler on “inferiority,” Jung on the “threat of the irrational,” Karen Horney on “hostility,” Henry Stack Sullivan on anxiety as the “apprehension of disapproval.”

Clearly, these thinkers have different perspectives. Several make valuable insights.

That said, the inquiry quickly becomes befuddling.

The key question: “Why do we do what we do?” Some say it’s primarily a matter of child/parent relationships. Others say it’s power dynamics. Others say it’s sexual repression, unconscious desires, various traumas, and so on. The theories range widely and sometimes contradict. It can easily become a mass of speculations about a Great Unknown – the “Unknown” being the ultimate answer to “What makes us tick?” or fully understanding the deep mysteries of human motivation. This inquiry can lead to a Twilight Zone where all answers seem plausible, but none seem definitive. It can become a disorienting tour through an intellectual funhouse.

That said, a bit of rigorous thinking can rule some speculations out. For example, there’s Freud’s early claim that anxiety is a product of sexual repression. But as May points out, “the phenomenon of sexual repression resulting in anxiety is by no means consistent; the frank libertine may be a very anxious person, and many well-clarified persons may bear a great deal of sexual abstinence without anxiety.”

There’s also reason to guard against hasty generalizations, such as the idea of anxiety being caused by repression. For example, as Freud himself declared later in his career:

“It was not the repression that created anxiety…the anxiety was there earlier and created the repression.”

Instead of following all of these theorists through this labyrinth, May helpfully ingests these insights, removes the dead-ends and circular paths, and emerges with a compiled approach that incorporates the best from each.

But first, May explores the broader picture that comes from the perspective of history and culture.

Anxiety from the Perspective of Culture

We often think of anxiety as something that impacts specific individuals. We sometimes see it as something different for everyone, an embarrassing secret, or a “personal problem” that’s unique to every individual.

But what about when we can find anxiety throughout an entire population?

When anxiety affects an entire culture, there’s clearly more to the story than whatever is happening on a personal level. At that point, it’s no longer solely a psychological problem but a sociological problem. It’s not merely a situation for an individual but for a society.

As seen above, there are political dimensions of anxiety. Social studies can offer insight into it, and literature can give expression to it. Along these lines, the cultural dimension of anxiety warrants inspection.

All of this raises the question: what effect does a culture have on anxiety?

More specifically, what was happening in the culture of America and the modern Western World in the late 20th Century that might impact anxiety levels?

Put briefly, May quotes Lawrence K. Frank, who mentioned the “growing realization among thoughtful people that our culture is sick.”

But “sick” in what way, and how?

To skip to the “back-of-the-book” answer: May describes the occasion for much anxiety in contemporary culture as “individual competitive ambition.” This ambition typically involves “social prestige goals” which typically means success defined “chiefly in economic terms” such as “the acquisition of wealth.” “Competitive success…is accepted as the means of validating the self in one’s own eyes as well as in the eyes of others. Whatever threatens this goal is, therefore, the occasion for profound anxiety…” (216)

But this culture didn’t just suddenly appear from nowhere. It’s a specific result that has arisen due to specific causes and has been developing over centuries.

May mentions the need for psychology to consider a historical perspective, which can help us see our present day in a new light. For example, he quotes Karl Mannheim, who asked: “Why did the Middle Ages and the Renaissance produce entirely different types of men?”

May explores this. His conclusions (presented here without the arguments leading up to them) highlight the effects of some broad historical trends.

In brief (and in our own words instead of May’s), we’re living through the death of God.

Nietzsche predicted this over a century ago. But it began before the Renaissance, and set certain dynamics in motion which continue working out their logical progressions today.

This basic dynamic plays out in many concrete ways, although it’s easy to lose the larger general trend amid specific particulars. The broader culture, however, reflects growing uncertainty, instability, rootlessness, meaninglessness, emptiness, and anxiety, all of which inevitably follow in the wake of “loss of myth” and the resulting “soft nihilism.”

But why? And how?

In brief, the Middle Ages culture was rooted in “Christendom.” Though imperfect – as all cultures are – Christendom was spiritually literate. It provided answers to the Big Questions of life, or the existential riddles we all face. As Ernest Becker noted, these answers served as a “hero project” that successfully keeps fear of death, feelings of meaninglessness, and anxiety at bay.

But, during the Renaissance, the focus shifted. Early successes appeared quickly, while negative consequences began to appear later. That “shift” meant becoming more interested in and focused on the natural, empirical world more than metaphysics and theology, industrial mass-production over tradecraft, individualistic striving over defining oneself according to one’s group, radical new beginnings (e.g., Descartes) over tradition, and so on. Much of this began to gradually chip away at and eventually undermine the culture, leading to what Christian journalist Malcolm Muggeridge would later call “The End of Christendom” or what Nietzsche would describe as The Death of God.

In philosophy, this translated as a loss of metaphysics. And when metaphysics goes, ethics, epistemology, teleology, and psychology soon follow. The result is confusion, uncertainty, meaninglessness, and half-baked models of human nature.

When legitimate religion disappears, people become spiritually illiterate and existentially unfit. The Big Questions become impossible to answer, get answered with absurd responses, or are ignored completely. The result isn’t widespread reason and rationality, but increasing superstition, anti-rationality, and substitute religions.

Substitute religions lead to the attempt to solve the Big Questions by different means. For example, this can lead to attempts to solve the problems of suffering and death with things like wealth, fame, and status.

May quotes Abram Kardiner who describes how the desire for “salvation” morphed into a desire for “success as a form of self-realization”:

“The anxieties of Western man are therefore concerned with success as a form of self-realization in the same way that salvation was in the Middle Ages. But in comparison with the individual who merely sought salvation, the psychological task for modern man is much more arduous. It is a responsibility, and failure brings with it less social censure and contempt than it does self-contempt, a feeling of inferiority and hopelessness.”

May further describes Kardiner’s view:

“…the post-mortem rewards and punishments of medieval ecclesiasticism kept aggressions under control and gave validation to the self. As the power of post-mortem rewards and punishments diminished, there developed an increasing emphasis on rewards here and now and an increased concern for social well-being (prestige, success). The self, no longer validated by post-mortem rewards, then found validation in present success.”

The result, as May describes, is how “individual competitive success become(s) both the dominant goal in our culture and the most pervasive occasion for anxiety” and that “the individual’s feeling of value as a human being so regularly depends upon his competitive triumph.”

“Success” in this sense doesn’t mean merely acquiring creature comforts or status symbols. It can mean someone matters. There’s a feeling that the successful somehow exist in a way while the unsuccessful “don’t exist.” The successful will “be remembered” while the unsuccessful won’t. The successful seem to have “being” in a way that others seem not to. It’s an engine of both envy and egotism, inferiority and snobbery, where even those few who succeed can feel like frauds because they know they aren’t the demigods others think they are, and that they sometimes pretend to be. Success (as salvation) as a scarce commodity in a zero-sum game, available only to the very few, generates a pervasive sense of toxic competition which can drive isolation and loneliness in a culture of “all-against-all.”

It’s a toxic, destructive, and delusional view of the world (as substitute religions often are) that leads to “an increased isolation, doubt, scepticism, and – resulting from all these – anxiety.”

May mentions this leading to a “symptom” Jakob Burckhardt describes as the “morbid craving for fame,” where “the driving desire for fame was so great that the individual committed assassination or other flagrantly antisocial acts in the hope that he might thereby be remembered by posterity.”

The assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan to garner the attention of actress Jody Foster (our example, not May’s) could illustrate this point well. Why is someone willing to murder in order to gain the attention of someone he’s never met and hardly knows? Answer: someone can become willing to murder when he imagines (mistakenly) that would mean he “exists” in the eyes of a demi-god (or someone he projects a kind of demi-god status onto) in order to relieve a crushing sense of anxiety driven by a sense of meaningless, rootlessness, and emptiness. It could be seen as an early version of celebritheism, a popular substitute religion today.

With the onset of social media, school shootings, “internet fandom,” a further erosion in spiritual literacy and psychological health, and more, the problems May was describing seem to have only deteriorated much more in the decades since he wrote.

The conclusion is clear: culture impacts anxiety. A toxic culture can transform a wholesome desire for success into a neurotic compulsion and a symptom that something has gone terribly wrong.

A Synthesis of Perspectives

May explored anxiety from a number of angles, as described above.

Yet the job isn’t finished. It’s possible to have multiple viewpoints that are just that: multiple viewpoints. While observing something from several angles can help broaden our perspective of something, it doesn’t necessarily provide the ultimate insight into what something is.

Yet, as May explains, “Our purpose is to construct a comprehensive theory of anxiety.” (188)

At this point, he explores “the nature of anxiety” based on his own insights, having done his homework above.

Compared to fear, he says, anxiety “attacks us on a deeper level. The threat must be to something in the ‘core’ or ‘essence’ of the personality.”

“…since anxiety attacks the foundation (core, essence) of the personality, the individual cannot ‘stand outside’ the threat, cannot objectify it. Thereby, one is powerless to take steps to confront it. One cannot fight what one does not know…one is afraid but uncertain of what one is afraid…anxiety is a threat to the essential, rather than to the peripheral…” (190-191)

“Anxiety is objectless because it strikes at that basis of the psychological structure on which the perception of one’s self as distinct from the world of objects occurs…” (191)

“Hence the expression that anxiety ‘attacks from the rear,’ or from all sides at once…in severe clinical cases anxiety is experienced as a ‘dissolution of the self.’”

With these in mind, he then arrives at a declaration:

“I propose the following definition: Anxiety is the apprehension cued off by a threat to some value that the individual holds essential to his existence as a personality.”

“Since anxiety threatens the basis of selfhood, it is described…as the realization that one may cease to exist as a self…the threat of ‘nonbeing.’ One is a being a self; but there is at any moment the possibility of ‘not being’…the fear of becoming nothing.”

We’ll pick up this definition later. But at this point, May makes an important distinction between “normal” anxiety – the kind of anxiety that every individual likely encounters during the course of life – and a more dysfunctional and harmful form of anxiety, which he calls “neurotic.”

“Normal” and “Neurotic Anxiety”

May describes between “normal” anxiety and a more toxic variety.

He first takes as self-evident the once-uncontroversial view that some sort of truth or objective reality exists. (This approach contrasts with those who adhere to worldviews or life philosophies of soft nihilism or various sorts of relativistic postmodernism.)

With that basic premise established as a foundation, he can define “normal anxiety” as anxiety that’s aligned with objective reality, and neurotic anxiety that isn’t.

He lists four traits of normal anxiety:

1) It’s proportional to the objective threat.
2) It doesn’t involve repression or other forms of inner conflict.
3) It doesn’t involve defense mechanisms.
4) It can be confronted constructively on the level of conscious awareness.

Neurotic anxiety, on the other hand, is the mirror opposite of this:

1) It’s disproportionate to the objective danger.
2) It involves repression, dissociation, or other forms of inner conflict.
3) It’s managed by means of defense mechanisms, symptoms, inhibitions, and so on.
4) It’s unconscious.

“Neurotic anxiety, therefore, is that which occurs when the incapacity for coping adequately with threats is not objective but subjective – i.e., is due not to objective weakness but to inner psychological patterns and conflicts which prevent the individual from using his powers. These conflicts generally have their genesis….in the situation in early childhood, when the child was not able objectively to meet the problems of a threatening interpersonal situation.” (199)

To clarify, saying that some anxiety is “neurotic” doesn’t mean it’s “unreal.” For the person experiencing it, the anxiety is quite real and exists on a visceral level. It doesn’t mean that the simple solution is to dismiss it as an illusion. Certain myths, narratives, or interpretations can even be temporarily helpful as coping mechanisms, as explored here.

That said, May does approach neurotic anxiety as having a solution. We can interpret symptoms, disable defense mechanisms, resolve inner conflicts, make repressed content unrepressed, make the unconscious conscious, and so on. He views neurotic anxiety as a condition that isn’t permanent. There is hope for relief. It can be resolved.

After this, he explores the origins of anxiety – whether it’s learned or not learned, whether ideas from psychoanalysis (such as castration anxiety or birth trauma) have merit, and so on. To us, it seems interesting but not essential.

The Capacity for Anxiety and Its Maturation

May considers the three responses to a threat: startle, anxiety, and fear.

He sees a progression or maturation in these responses, which can illuminate the nature of anxiety and our responses to it.

Imagine a sudden loud noise, like the blast of a gunshot.

“First, the adult responds with startle. Second, as he becomes aware of the threat but is unable to localize the source of the shooting or to tell whether it is aimed at him, he is in the state of anxiety. Third, as he is able to spot the source of the gunshot and to take steps to get out of the way, he is in the state of fear.” (207)

Based on this, there are three stages:

1) A startle response
2) Aware of a threat of some sort, but without being able to know what the threat is
3) The ability to know and understand the nature of the threat and actively respond.

#1 above is simple startle, #2 is anxiety, and #3 is normal, healthy fear.

Anxiety and Fear

Anxiety is often confused with “fear” and “stress.”

Which is more basic? Anxiety, or fear? Is fear an offshoot of anxiety, or is anxiety an offshoot of fear?

May argues that “anxiety is the basic, underlying reaction…” and “…fear is the expression of the same capacity in its specific, objectivated form.” So, “…anxiety is ‘primal’ rather than ‘derived’” and “it is fear that is derived rather than anxiety.” He agrees with Goldstein, who defined fear as “the onset of anxiety.” (209)

He uses this analogy to describe how anxiety threatens the “core” or “essence of personality.”

In a military conflict,

“…the front lines represent specific threats; so long as the battle can be fought out on the periphery, so long as the dangers can be warded off in the area of the outer fortifications, the vital areas are not threatened. But when the enemy breaks through into the capital of the country, when the inner lines of communication are broken and the battle is no longer localized; when, that is, the enemy attacks from all directions and the defending soldiers do not know which way to march or where to take a stand, we have the threat of being overwhelmed, with its corollaries, panic and frantic behavior. The latter is analogous to a threat to the basic values, the ‘inner citadel’ of the personality; and in individual psychological terms it is the threat responded to as anxiety.” (209-210)

Anxiety and Conflict

As May states:

“Neurotic anxiety always involves inner conflict.”

According to the classical Freudian model, the nature of this conflict is between the “id” on the one hand and the “superego” on the other, or instincts/libido versus cultural requirements. Anxiety, according to this model, is a result of repression.

But is this how conflict really works?

According to the consensus of the investigators since Freud (such as Sullivan, Karen Horney, Mowrer, etc.), it isn’t. After all:

“Some persons have a great deal of sexual expression (i.e., suffer no frustration) and still have much anxiety. Other persons bear considerable sexual privation and are not prey to excessive anxiety…Thus something more than the need for mere sexual gratification is occurring. The problem is not the frustration in itself, but whether the frustration threatens…his security and self-esteem.” (211)

Or, rephrased:

“The threat of frustration of a biological urge does not cause conflict and anxiety unless that urge is identified with some value essential to the existence of the personality.” (211)

Anxiety and Hostility

May also states this on hostility:

“Anxiety and hostility are interrelated; one usually generates the other. First anxiety gives rise to hostility…Second, hostility in anxious persons gives rise to increased anxiety.”

Which is more basic?

Again, May concludes that anxiety is primary, and the rest is secondary.

“Anxiety is often present below the hostility…The hostility would not have to be repressed in the first place except that the individual is anxious and fears counter-hostility or alienation.” (215-216)

Culture and Community

Culture plays a key role in the generation, expression, and quantity of anxiety. A healthy society creates less anxiety. A dysfunctional society creates more.

Today, as stated above, “individual competitive ambition” drives a great deal of anxiety. We strive for success as defined chiefly by wealth and “prestige” or status. This competition depends on triumphing over others, and becomes

“…the means of validating the self in one’s own eyes as well as in the eyes of others. Whatever threatens this goal is, therefore, the occasion for profound anxiety for the individual…” (216)

As Karen Horney described, we can find this competition in fields of

“popularity, competence, attractiveness, or any other social value…It pervades school life. And perhaps most important of all, it pervades the family situation…” (217)

Even love, for example, can be corrupted by this dynamic. Instead of being a healthy intimate relation that dispels loneliness and isolation, it becomes an exercise of competition “in the rivalry over winning a socially and enviable mate; it is a proof of one’s social competence; the mate is viewed as an acquisition in much the same way as one would view winning profits on the stock market…” (217)

This results not only in social hostility between individuals due to competition but “self alienation” resulting from “viewing one’s self as an object of the market…” (218)

But again, where did this state of affairs come about?

May doesn’t directly refer to “The Death of God” or the “loss of myth” in this context. But he does refer to “disunity” or “contradictions and inconsistencies in a culture” that “make the member of the society more vulnerable to anxiety. (220-221)

Why does that happen? As May describes, it’s

“…because they increase the number of situations in which he is unable to decide on any approved course of action…” because there is no “consistent systems of value within his culture. The threat the individual experiences is, therefore, not just to his possibility of attaining his goal, but…doubts as to whether the goal is worth attaining – i.e., the threat becomes a threat to the goal itself.” This leads to a sense of meaninglessness, aimlessness and emptiness, or “the feeling of the ‘dissolution of the self.” (221)

That was his diagnosis (even in the late 20th Century).

“I believe this is what is going on in our society.” (221)

But again, why? May quotes Karl Mannheim, who says that when this happens in a society, “…it becomes clear to him that there is no longer any social authority to set unquestioned standards and determine his behavior.” (222) He further stated:

“…it is important to remember that our society is faced, not with a brief unrest, but with a radical change of structure.”

May then describes how totalitarianism can arise under these circumstances.

“Totalitarianism is a cultural neurotic symptom of the need for community…a means of allaying anxiety resulting from the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness of the isolated, alienated individuals produced in a society in which competitive individualism has been the dominant goal. Totalitarianism is the substitution of collectivism for community…” (223)

May then makes a proposal:

“I submit that one of the central requirements for the constructive overcoming of anxiety in our society is the development of adequate forms of community.” (223)

May’s Final Conclusion

After his exhaustive and wide-ranging exploration of anxiety, May published The Meaning of Anxiety in 1950. Over 25 years later, in 1977, he published a Revised Edition.

After examining anxiety from the perspectives of literature, social studies, politics, theology, philosophy, biology, psychology, psychotherapy, and culture, May described (in the Forward to the Revised Edition) how

“a bold theory is necessary that will comprehend not only our normal and neurotic anxiety but anxiety in literature, art, and philosophy as well.”

He then offered his theory in a single sentence:

“I propose that this theory be founded on the definition that
anxiety is the experience of Being affirming itself against Nonbeing.”

He describes “Nonbeing” as “that which would reduce or destroy Being, such as aggression, fatigue, boredom, and ultimately death.”

That, in a few words, is May’s summary of his intensive research on anxiety.

Later in the book, he restated the idea, perhaps more clearly:

“When all is said and done, all anxiety arises from conflicts, with its origin in the conflict between being and nonbeing, between one’s existence and that which threatens it.” (331)

Perhaps we can boil it down even further, into seven words.

Anxiety is about death of the self.

We can unpack this further.

Part III: Exploring May’s Answer Further, and What To Do

May summarized anxiety as “Being affirming itself against Nonbeing.”

Rephrased slightly, anxiety is about death of the self.

Anxiety is the feeling of the self (“Being”) being threatened by a potential death of the self (“Nonbeing”).

This may seem abstract or academic at first, but it can be very practical when it comes to the challenge of making sense of everyday experience.

For example, most of us have had some experience of “angst.” But what is angst? In this context, it’s the awareness of the looming problem of the “death of the self” while sensing that we’re currently doing nothing to solve it. This intrudes in our everyday experience by way of a force we often describe as “conscience.” Genuine relief involves turning, facing, and directly dealing with that looming problem.

Given this, we can unpack the “death of the self” by treating it as a new starting point and drilling more deeply into its two key ingredients:

1) “death”
2) “the self”

First, there’s “death.”

We often think of death in a specific and narrow way.

We typically think of the death of the body as an event that happens at the end of someone’s life. It’s a single, specific, one-time, physical (medical) event.

This idea is based on defining ourselves as the physical body – and solely as the physical body.

But we can also take a wider view.

There are other forms of “death.”

A divorce, for example, is a kind of “death” of a marriage.

A company that goes out of business is a kind of “death” of that organization and effort.

A scandal or exposure of corruption could mean the death of someone’s career or reputation.

A country that’s conquered or that dissolves from within is a kind of death of that country or culture.

Someone changing their core beliefs or life philosophy (for example, from being a religious believer to an atheist, or from an atheist to a believer) can mean a kind of death of a particular way of life.

And so on. Human beings are complex. They contain multiple levels. In this sense, an “existential crisis” can take many forms. Death is always an apparent ending, but many different types of things can end – marriages, friendships, companies, countries, cultures, belief systems, and so on.

That’s the “what?” question.

But there’s also the “when?”

We often think of death as a single event. We typically think of death as the single moment that occurs when the physical body ceases to function. It happens for each of us only once, and then it’s over.

But we don’t necessarily experience death as a single, isolated event.

But there’s also the anticipation of that event.

There’s also the threat of death, which is woven into the fabric of our daily lives.

In this sense, death isn’t contained and limited as a single physical event, but is also a constant threat that’s present in our everyday experience.

For example, we can imagine walking on a tightrope over a canyon or navigating through a room full of poisonous snakes.

In both cases, we could say that we’re successful – we make it over the tightrope or across the room.

In both scenarios, even though we survived just fine, death was present as a constant threat.

It never fully appears. It doesn’t become realized as a physical event or objective reality. But death is still experienced as an imagined event or subjective reality. Even if we don’t die, death is still exerting a very real, tangible force within our experience.

In this sense, the threat of death is always present in life.

It’s the Sword of Damocles forever dangling over the party, the “skull” that “grins at the banquet,” the “Eternal Footman” that “holds my coat for me, and snickers.” From the moment we’re born, we experience hunger, cold, and various experiences as direct or indirect threats to our survival.

But these are “threats” to what, exactly?

They’re threats to “the self.”

Having touched on one pillar of anxiety, we can move on to the other.

Then there’s “the self.”

But what is the “self”?

When we think of the self, again, we often think of my “self” as “my physical body.”

That’s typically our default setting. But when we examine it more closely, we often revise our outlook and decide that “I” am not merely my physical body. I have a “soul,” or a “spirit,” “consciousness,” or a “deeper self” – and that is “the real me.”

I could lose an arm, but “I” would still exist.

In this sense, “I” and “my arm” are two separate things. We often refer to “my arm” as something external to me that “I” possess.

In the same way, I could lose a leg, both arms, both legs, and several body parts – but “I” would still be there.

In the other direction, I can also see my “self” as things or people that are external to my physical body. For example, we often hear something along the lines of this: “If something happens to my child, it happens to me.” It’s a sentiment most parents can relate to. We can care intensely about things that could be hundreds of miles away from our physical body, such as sports teams, musicians, or celebrities. We can even see our “selves” in things that don’t actually exist – as in movies, where we can identify with a drawing of a deer (Bambi) or fish (Nemo, Dory) or a piece of plastic (the Toy Story movies.)

In this sense, my “self” isn’t easily defined as “just the physical body.”

We often see the self as something more like “a hidden core inside me” that’s “the real me.” It’s what we call a “soul” or “spirit” or “consciousness” that’s “behind the mask” of who I pretend to be. We often think of it as a fixed, permanent thing – the “I” that is permanent underneath all the changes and flux that happen on the surface.

But here’s where things can get tricky.

There’s what I am, and there’s what I think I am.

And to risk stating the obvious, we aren’t always who or what we think we are. Sometimes, we can be mistaken about who or what we think we are.

Our ideas about ourselves can be out of sync with reality. Criminals can believe they’re heroes, geniuses can believe they’re ignorant, beauties can believe they’re ugly, heroes can imagine they’re cowards, and so on.

Sometimes, we don’t “know ourselves.” That might even be the norm in some ways.

(If that wasn’t the case, the advice to “know thyself” would be pointless, and probably wouldn’t have been passed on through thousands of years.)

Herein lies a key engine of anxiety.

As we navigate through life, we’re forced to define ourselves.

We all have to answer the question, “Who or What am I?”

From deciding what to study in school to choosing who to marry or what we want for a job or career, we’re constantly in the process of deciding who we are and who we want to be.

We often imagine, guess at, assume, or infer answers based on various experiences. “Who am I?” or “What am I?” is a Big Question or existential riddle that we all face, and that we must answer. We can’t not answer it.

And that answer can be inaccurate.

Since life is messy, our answers can be partial, incomplete, and misinformed.

It can be like a case of mistaken identity.

For example, we could imagine a scenario where everyone considers a girl named Jen to be “the smartest girl in class,” including Jen herself. Jen prides herself on it, and everyone accepts it as the norm.

But one day, a new student joins the school. That new student is also very smart. She might even be smarter than Jen.

Jen, at this point, will probably experience some anxiety.


Because the idea of “the smartest girl in class” is part of her identity. It’s how she defines herself. It’s her assumed answer to who or what she thinks she is. It’s part of her “self.”

And now that “self” is threatened.

Variations of this scenario serve as a classic plot engine in sitcoms and dramas.

If it becomes evident – especially in an obvious or dramatic way – that Jen is no longer the smartest girl in class, Jen could experience an existential crisis, or a small, light brush with a “death of the self.”

That would mean the end of who she thinks she is. “If that’s not who I am, then who or what am I?”

The loss of identity can seem intolerable or even terrifying.

That’s just one very mild case of mistaken identity.

That basic scene can play itself out in many different ways and at larger scales.

For example, a Hollywood actress might see herself as “the prettiest girl in town.” Her identity – how she defines herself, who she imagines herself to be – is based on that. Her income and financial security, her social status, many of her relationships, etc., are based on that identity.

But then we can imagine the next stage of this plot: new young women are coming to Hollywood every day. If someone defines herself as the prettiest girl in town, every new young woman who rolls into town potentially becomes a threat.

Again, it isn’t a physical threat. It’s a threat to a key idea about herself. The threat of losing that identity or self-concept (or, as she would see it, “losing herself”) can become a source of anxiety. That her financial security, social status, relationships, and so on are based on that identity can amplify the effect.

Another example: a man might define himself almost entirely by his wealth. His house, his car, his clothes, his daily pleasures, the way he treats others and expects them to treat him – it’s all based on his identity as a “wealthy person.”

But then we can imagine a downturn or stock market crash where he loses his wealth. For him, that wouldn’t simply mean that a loss of his ability to buy things. It would mean a loss of identity. So long as he defined himself by his wealth, he would feel threatened by a loss of wealth – a loss of that identity – and he would experience that threat as anxiety. A loss of his wealth would mean a kind of “death of self.”

The same experience could happen with someone who defined themselves by their social media following, political power, particular relationships, etc. In a sense, one’s identity depends on what “game” someone is playing in life. The loss of social media followers, power, or a particular relationship can feel like a loss of self, which creates anxiety.

All of these cases have common factors.

Each depends on an identity, “ego,” or “self” that connects to who or what individuals think they are.

They imagine that a particular identity is what makes them unique, special, and valuable. The threat of losing that identity – that ego or self – creates anxiety because it seems like the loss of what makes them unique, special, and valuable. They might imagine – mistakenly – that without it, they’re “nothing.”

In Snow White, the Queen thought of herself as “the fairest one of all.” That was her identity. When someone threatened that identity, instead of accepting the natural way of things – that things change – she rebelled against it. Instead of facing up to the difficult truth that she wouldn’t be “the fairest” forever, she decided to resort to murder in order to take out the threat. Instead of the way of gracious self-sacrifice, she chose the way of violence, and so became a villain. Had she chosen differently, she could have become a hero.

These simple examples illustrate the basic dynamic:

Anxiety is about “death of the self.” Various forms of “mistaken identity” are possible. The real self isn’t the same as our ideas about the self. So, we can be wrong about who and what we think we are, and we can have ideas about ourselves that are mistaken or inaccurate. We can create and invest in a “false self” or many “false selves.” Yet we’re often very attached to, and sensitive about, who or what we think we are. If we experience a threat – the threat of death – to that self, or any of those selves, we experience anxiety.

So, what can we do?

How can we respond to anxiety in a way that makes us stronger and healthier?

Can anxiety either cripple or strengthen us, depending on how we approach it?

It seems so.

Kierkegaard spoke about this. As he described it, anxiety isn’t necessarily “negative” in the sense of being unnecessary, useless suffering.

Instead, it’s a force that can work either against us or for us. It’s potentially meaningful. As mentioned earlier, he even described anxiety as an “adventure” and a “school.” While that might seem delusionally optimistic, the idea that we aren’t mere victims of anxiety – that anxiety can be transformed into a kind of fuel – puts us in the driver’s seat. According to this perspective, it offers a challenge we can respond to. Anxiety isn’t something to endure, but to learn from.

In the movie Wanted, the hero – Wesley – starts out as a stressed, miserable, anxious office worker who is exclusively dependent on medication to help him manage his anxiety. But then he meets some individuals who teach him to approach everything differently – to convert anxiety in a way that strengthens him. While movies obviously oversimplify the process, Kierkegaard would likely describe the basic journey as legitimate, and, at least in some cases, a viable way forward.

Rollo May would likely agree as well. Toward this end, May discusses two broad responses to anxiety: toxic (“Destructive”) and healthy (“Constructive”).

Destructive Responses to Anxiety

Unhealthy approaches to solving the problem of anxiety are unfortunately all too familiar.

Drinking or drug use, for example, are often ways to “self-medicate” as a dysfunctional “solution” to the problem of anxiety. Various addictions or bad habits can serve to either distract us, numb us, help us forget, or blunt some of the effects of the problem. Compulsive work, sex, or frantic activity can sometimes serve as ineffective attempts to resolve an underlying anxiety. Sometimes, these habits can develop into rigid thinking or compulsive habits that restrict our life experience and even “impoverish the personality.”

May describes how these efforts can sometimes offer temporary releases of tension but without resolving the underlying conflict.

These “conflicts” can take many forms. Some can involve straightforward life-or-death struggles, symbolic or not, as illustrated above, while other times, there are intricate, complex relationship dynamics.

May offers a few examples of how early childhood relationships with parents can sometimes set the stage for seemingly unsolvable inner conflicts. For example, he describes a patient who believed he must either surrender all of his time and energy to serving his mother, or be killed. Conditions such as these – half-conscious, unarticulated, unresolved emotional conflicts that are entirely subjective and which generate attempted solutions that don’t genuinely resolve the conflict – are what May describes as “neurotic anxiety.”

“Destructive ways” to approach anxiety depend primarily on avoiding anxiety rather than facing it directly. A lack of self-knowledge is a key ingredient in that there are attempts to solve the problem of anxiety (and happiness) in ways that ultimately – in ways that we understand and are entirely predictable – won’t work.

Genuine solutions, then, depend on a change of strategy.

Better answers to anxiety lie in the direction of facing it directly (instead of avoiding it) with constructive approaches to the problem.

Constructive Responses to Anxiety

So, what are constructive ways to respond to anxiety?

One key and often overlooked component is simply this: avoid destructive approaches to anxiety.

That can go a long way. Our efforts to solve anxiety can sometimes generate more anxiety. Drug or alcohol addiction or various means of denial and escapism can sometimes make things worse.

That said, the strategy of avoiding destructive approaches to anxiety is playing defense. It highlights only what not to do instead of a positive way forward.

A key part of the approach must also involve going on offense. This means refusing to avoid anxiety, instead turning around to face it head-on.

This means facing the unknown in a search for answers. We often – understandably – want a simple “Step 1, 2, 3” process to solve the problem quickly and easily. Plenty of people and institutions seem more than willing to offer these. They also seem to profit from these approaches whether they actually work or not. Only after easy non-solutions fail and we get a taste of disillusionment do we often turn to more thorough approaches.

May is in this latter category. He offers no easy answers. But he does describe a way through.

He describes one study that’s particularly illuminating.

May tells a story about a study of twelve individuals who lived under tremendous stress.

These individuals were twelve Green Beret combat soldiers in Vietnam. They were stationed in an isolated camp near the Cambodian border.

The levels of stress and actual life-or-death threat they lived under would have probably been unmanageable for many of us. Yet they seemed to handle the situation – and anxiety – quite well.

How did they manage it?

The study concluded that the key ingredients were several key qualities:

1) “Self-reliance to the point of omnipotence” – where, as May described, their “faith in their own invulnerability bordered on a feeling of immortality.”
2) They threw themselves into their work.
3) They trusted their leaders.
4) They had a strong religious faith.

A second study resulted in similar conclusions.

While few of us experience intense combat situations in our day-to-day lives (thankfully), we can extrapolate from the studies above. Strategies that worked under those extreme conditions should work under easier conditions. Self-reliance, hard work, trustworthy leaders, and a strong religious faith can offer a degree of relief from anxiety, and this offers real insight into the problem.

But it isn’t a comprehensive solution.

There are several factors May doesn’t mention. The soldiers in the above example avoided destructive responses to anxiety, such as heavy drinking or drug use, for example. They also had many advantages: a close-knit community of like-minded people, a job they saw as not just worthwhile but worth dying for, they had training for and expertise on that job, they had companions who were chosen from a rigorous selection process, they had friends they interacted with regularly who would keep them honest (and who would presumably prevent them from slipping into denial or various defense mechanisms, akin to acting as informal therapists or sorts), they had a clearly defined “ethos” or culture or mythology within the unit – and so on.

Some individuals living outside of the military discipline of wartime in a raw, unstructured, sometimes chaotic world might not have loads of confidence, fulfilling work, trustworthy leaders, or even a strong sense of spirituality. Some might also lack a close-knit community of like-minded people, inspiring work, training, job skills in general, positive companions and coworkers, a strong friendship network, a healthy, non-toxic culture, a strong spiritual life, and so on.

All of these offer valuable points of reference and factors we can take into account in the effort to convert anxiety into a force that strengthens us.

But even this is still only part of the picture.

In earlier sections, May also described the resolution of inner conflicts.

He described “neurotic anxiety” as being composed in part of dilemmas. “I must either surrender myself to another person or die” is the kind of choice that some face on an emotional level. In this situation, both options seem wrong. Resolutions come with finding better alternatives and more creative solutions.

But to solve inner conflicts, we first have to become aware of them. Conflicts such as these are sometimes only half-conscious or even fully unconscious and become apparent only in external symptoms.

The effort, then, lies in the ability to become more conscious.

May describes this approach in so many words – as an “expansion of awareness” where “the person sees what value is threatened, and becomes aware of the conflicts between his goals and how these conflicts developed.” This takes place through a process of “…re-education: the person restructures his goals, makes a choice of values, and proceeds toward the attainment of these values responsibly and realistically.”

May’s language here is unusually abstract and clinical. What he describes is much easier said than done. We don’t simply sit down one day and make “a choice of values” or “restructure our goals,” for example.

It’s a way of life.

This way can have the effects of therapy – indirectly, through the results of some other form of “inner work” or even (something May refers to only indirectly) some form of contemplative practice. The aim and the hopeful result are the same: it makes the unconscious conscious in the deliberate aim to attain psychological health. The way is to “know thyself.”

Instead of a frontal assault of anxiety, this approach is more of a siege. It doesn’t attack directly, but instead isolates it and cuts off its resources. When anxiety stops receiving “food and supplies” of a sort in the form of energy and attention, it weakens. At this point, natural strength can shine through.

This approach can wind up shrinking the area where anxiety lives.

Anxiety lives in the area between “startle” and “fear.”

The “startle response” is the kind of thing that happens when a loud noise creates a sudden physical jolt, for example. It’s primal, instinctive, visceral, pre-intellectual – a physical response requiring no thought or analysis.

Fear, on the other hand, is “post-intellectual.” If we experience fear, that means we’re at least somewhat clear about what we’re afraid of. It’s contained and restricted to a fairly specific something.

Anxiety lives between these two.

This “between” realm isn’t a brief physical-emotional response, so it isn’t a mere startle. But it also isn’t fear, because we haven’t yet figured out what exactly to be afraid of.

As Kierkegaard stated once again: “If a man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in anxiety. Since he is a synthesis he can be in anxiety and the greater the anxiety the greater the man.” (45)

Anxiety, then, is the occasional sense of a vast terrain where “there’s something to be afraid of, but we don’t know what it is yet.”

We determined above that “what we’re afraid of” is “death of the self.”

“Death of the self” is a broad concept. While it can manifest in many forms, what they share in common is a threat to selfhood.

Yet directives to “know thyself” and “make the unconscious conscious” and so on, while accurate, can seem abstract. They aren’t specific. This directive is pitted against very real, very tangible experiences of anxiety. In a contest between the abstract and the tangible, the tangible often wins.

Solving this problem means returning back to our definition.

If anxiety is defined as the experience of the threat of the “death of self,” then the key to anxiety lies in:

1) understanding death, and
2) understanding ourselves.

Death is the domain of religion.

Religion, in other words, can be seen as a set of tools to help us understand and deal with death.

Death can appear to be one of the few certainties in life. Yet the major world religions (and the theologies and philosophies that stem from them) address this head-on and explore the matter in great depth. For most of humanity throughout known history, these teachings have been a source not just of comfort but insight and emotional health. A functional response to death can help keep potentially crippling anxiety at bay.

But importantly, religions also don’t merely claim to “help us cope” with the reality of death. They aren’t meant to be a mere mechanism of consolation to help us adjust to an otherwise unbearable reality.

They claim to have the solution to it. They point toward overcoming or conquering death itself. They describe an answer, a solution to the problem.

Religions also help us understand “self.”

This leads us back to the earlier discussion of the “who am I?” question, or how we define ourselves as we move through life.

Earlier examples described individuals who defined themselves in specific ways. For example, they might describe themselves as “the smartest/prettiest/funniest person in class,” or they might define themselves by their wealth, status symbols, social media following, etc.

But these definitions are problematic.

Even if they work in the short term, they become dysfunctional in the long term.

But why? How can “the ways we define ourselves” even be measured?

There are several ways to measure our answers here.

The criteria used to measure a life philosophy (discussed here) can also “measure” the self. Is it coherent? Is it consistent? Is it liveable? – and so on.

Of course, “measure” should come with a flood of qualifiers. The measure isn’t of value. Obviously, every human life is valuable. The measure in this sense indicate the stability and sanity of an individual’s identity.

Like a life philosophy, given a long enough time frame, some identities will collapse. If a person defines themselves according to fame, for example, and builds their entire personality around the idea that “I’m the most famous person in the world” – well, they’re setting themselves up for some highly predictable misery. Fame is notoriously fleeting. Even if we’re famous today, we won’t necessarily be famous tomorrow. Fame, therefore, isn’t a sturdy foundation on which to build an identity.

In short, the key question is this: is an identity sturdy, or is it fragile? Will it hold up under the slings and arrows of life, or will it eventually collapse?

Some individuals might define themselves based on their wealth. But wealth can be lost. A Hollywood starlet or supermodel might define themselves based on their good looks, but youthful good looks are very temporary. Someone might defines themselves according to the size of their social media following, which can disappear with the push of a few buttons. And so on. (Here, this connects with the problem of death – because, to all appearances, death robs us of our wealth, our good looks, and so on. Even if certain things do live on temporarily after we move on – our name is in history books, for example – we won’t be around to enjoy it.)

In each of these cases, an identity is based on a foundation that’s fragile.

An identity based entirely on wealth or fame, for example, is a “false self.” It’s “false” because it’s temporary, and dependent on numerous things beyond itself. A fragile or false self generates anxiety. We can sense – accurately – that life can and will deliver tough blows – and amid that process, some identities will collapse.

Anxiety, then, decreases in relation to our avoidance of taking on a “false self” or fragile identity. Restated, we could say that this: the more real self, the less anxiety.

Finding out who you are involves backing away from who you aren’t. This involves letting go of the false self or all false selves. If I discover that I’m not the smartest, prettiest, the wealthiest, etc. – so what? Does it matter?

This reveals identity as something that isn’t entirely fixed. Clearly, our identity changes as we move through life – sometimes even within minutes. Again, we can identify with an imaginary fish during a movie (Nemo/Dory) and experience an array of emotions based on that.

The trick, then, lies in establishing and aligning an identity based on a foundation that’s firm instead of fragile, and aligned with reality instead of illusion.

This path, once again, leads back to genuine religion. “Genuine religion” is meant to lead humans to reality, or even Reality.

But still, even this doesn’t entirely solve the problem.

Humanity has taken part in religions of various sorts throughout history, yet still experience anxiety. Mere intellectual ideas or belief systems can sometimes seem to have little effect on the very tangible experiences of anxiety. Even when religion is genuine and sincere, anxiety can still be present on a visceral level. It isn’t a purely spiritual condition.

Anxiety involves physical sensations.

Learning to handle the physical sensations that arise during an experience of anxiety can be a critical step in overcoming it.

We might have clear intellectual ideas about anxiety, yet still be plagued with feelings of anxiety.

Our heady thinking, theorizing, and speculating about anxiety can sometimes run parallel to the sensations in our bodily experience. They can sometimes seem like two separate streams. Our interpretations can also be mistaken, unproductive, or even primarily a symptom of the anxiety itself.

A story can illustrate this.

Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom was once involved in a head-on automobile collision that demolished both vehicles. Both drivers emerged basically intact, and Yalom delivered a lecture two hours later.

Yet within a few days, he was surprised to discover that one of his usual lunches with colleagues – which were typically enjoyable – suddenly became fraught with anxiety.

As he described:

“I enjoyed my colleagues and especially looked forward to the daily leisurely luncheon discussions of scholarly issues. Immediately after the accident I developed intense anxiety around these lunches. Would I have anything of significance to say? How would my colleagues regard me? Would I make a fool of myself? After a few days the anxiety was so extreme that I began to search for excuses to lunch somewhere by myself.”
(Existential Psychotherapy p44)

In short, he experienced feelings of anxiety, but his automatic interpretation of the reason for that anxiety was mistaken. His anxiety wasn’t directed at what actually caused it.

If the chain of cause and effect had been clear and direct, Yalom would have felt anxiety exclusively about his car wreck. Instead, anxious feelings arose, and “he” unconsciously and mistakenly interpreted them as originating in his immediate environment.

Our feelings of anxiety can be entirely separate from how we interpret them.

From that point, Yalom could have easily begun avoiding lunches. If his anxiety had generalized more from that point, he might have started avoiding social interactions altogether, avoiding leaving home, or even avoiding getting out of bed – all to avoid the anxiety and what he imagined was causing it.

But as a trained psychiatrist and psychotherapist, he was on guard, and knew not to take his initial interpretation at face value. He continued:

“Considerable death anxiety had erupted immediately following the accident, and I had ‘handled’ it primarily by displacement – by splitting it from its true source and riveting it to a convenient specific situation. My fundamental death anxiety thus had only a brief efflorescence before being secularized to such lesser concerns as self-esteem, fear of interpersonal rejection, or humiliation.”
(Existential Psychotherapy 44-45)

By watching himself, questioning himself, and inquiring – in short, by “knowing himself” in a deliberate way – he saved himself from what could have become toxic habits.

There are reasons to be skeptical of what our minds offer us as immediate cause-and-effect explanations and look deeper.

Yet, we can also avoid elaborate searches for obscure psychological causes.

Psychotherapy is infamous for its extended speculation about the ultimate causes of various mental and emotional conditions. They can range from childhood experiences to parental relationships to birth experiences, and everything from potty training to breastfeeding has been praised or blamed. While they’re sometimes fruitful, pseudo-scientific speculations can also lead to extended goose-chasing. A quest to seek out the specific experiences in our personal history that serve as the root cause of this or that behavior can be fruitless. When these quests are combined with the kind of utter certainty, unshakeable confidence, and self-appointed infallibility we humans seem prone to, the efforts often lead to both comedies and tragedies.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t become free of effects, whatever might have originally caused them. Our choices aren’t limited to the dilemma of either locating deeply hidden and elusive memories or merely resigning ourselves to incurable anxiety.

A third approach entails allowing an awareness of the energy without bothering much with the interpretation.

Interpretation (or understanding) can come after the experience.

It can sometimes come on its own after the energy has been addressed first. Instead of an “analysis first, realign sensations second” approach, an alternative is “sensations first, understanding after.”

The key lies in the bodily sensations themselves.

If we can experience bodily sensations simply for what they are – as various bodily energies – then we can bypass the need for elaborate interpretations or explanations. This amounts to a kind of method or practice that can illuminate and clarify our inner life without the need for extensive speculating and intellectualizing.

In the classic book Hope and Help for Your Nerves, Dr. Claire Weekes recommends a basic, ongoing attitude toward physical sensations. As she describes:

“The principle of treatment can be summarized as:
Letting time pass.”

This can seem deceptively simple and, therefore, easy to dismiss or ignore. But as she says, “There is nothing mysterious or surprising about this treatment, and yet it is enlightening to see how many people sink deeper into their illness by doing the exact opposite.”

Weekes describes that “opposite” approach as becoming “unduly alarmed by…symptoms, examining each as it appears, ‘listening in’ in apprehension.” She describes how one individual “tried to free himself of the unwelcome feelings by tensing himself to meet them or by pushing them away…in other words, by fighting or running away…Briefly, he spent his time:

Running away, not facing;
Fighting, not accepting;
Arresting and ‘listening in,’ not floating past;
Being impatient with time, not letting time pass.”
     (Hope and Help for your Nerves, pp24-25)

This could parallel in some ways the “mindfulness” of Buddhism or the practice of Vipassana meditation.

That’s no coincidence. Mindfulness is one form of contemplative practice.

A regular “contemplative practice” can be a game-changer with anxiety.

A contemplative practice (described more here) is like an “exercise of the soul.” We might go to the gym to strengthen our bodies, but where do we go to strengthen our souls? In the way physical workouts result in physical health, contemplative practices result in psychological and existential fitness.

Contemplative practices can take such forms as specific techniques of mindfulness, stillness, centering prayer, meditation, or various other techniques to experiment with.

A contemplative practice can help establish a “center” that can form the foundation from which we can process the energies of anxiety, “digest” them, incorporate, and harness them.

With practice, physical energies of anxiety that would previously trip us up can transform into fuel. Instead of being dissociated or dysfunctional energy that we experience as debilitative, we can feel and “digest” them in ways that can become vitality.

This again leads back to Kierkegaard.

“This is an adventure that every human must go through – to learn to be anxious...
whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the most important thing...”

This might be the “most important thing,” yet hardly anyone seems to teach it. If that statement is correct, then we apparently teach plenty of less important things while ignoring the most important.

But this “most important thing” isn’t a public and straightforward action.

Rather, it’s often a private, subjective, personal act.

In this realm, the entire matter often hinges on activity within a relationship that turns both between our ears and between our shoulder blades, deep in the privacy of our minds and hearts.

More plainly, it can involve relatively simple decisions and repeated efforts, even in the face of what might seem like failure.

Such relatively simple decisions and efforts might include a turn to face anxiety instead of avoiding it. It might mean turning away from destructive efforts to escape anxiety and toward more constructive efforts. It might involve letting go of certain habits of self-analysis in favor of simply paying attention to sensations. It might involve public and objective action in the world, such as seeking out a genuine religion and a community built around it.

These aren’t one-time efforts. They’re constellations of efforts and experiences that accrue over time.

They become, in short, a way of life.

This “way of life” could be what The Fork meant in calling anxiety an “adventure.”

If anxiety can transform daily life into something torturous, it might also have the power to transform it into something better. If anxiety can form a kind of inner prison, perhaps it can also lead to a prison break – an escape from misery by way of a series of tunneling under inner walls, navigating hidden passages, or unlocking inner doors with secret keys, which eventually lead to freedom.

If anxiety is about “death of the self,” maybe the “adventure” could lie in experiences of insight about both death and the self.

Discoveries about the self could mean realizing that we aren’t who we think we are or that we’ve based ideas about our identity on shaky foundations.

It can be a harrowing experience.

But it can also point the way to a deeper, more real version of ourselves. We can discover who we are by backing away from who we aren’t.

If we go through an existential crisis of finding out that we aren’t who we thought we were, we might notice that we don’t disappear. We might be surprised to find that, as strange as it might sound, we’re still there. What’s left over, like a snake shedding its skin or an actor dropping a mask, is still ourselves, but a lower, more real version of ourselves.

And “death of the self” can also lead to greater insights about death. In this, we might discover that the major religions are trying to explain something incredibly difficult and often ignored – for example, that death isn’t what it seems to be. When we face it in a certain way, death might surprise us and reveal itself to be something very different than it seemed. We might find that there’s something much bigger going on that’s very difficult to explain and can only be known with a certain kind of insight. It’s not the kind of thing that one person can simply explain to another, but something every individual can only discover on their own.

Maybe something along these lines is what Kierkegaard meant by describing anxiety as an adventure. If we approach it in a certain way, as harrowing as it might be sometimes, maybe it can ultimately transform us.

“Transform us” into who, or what?

Maybe someone more real, and more alive.

And we might decide that The Fork wasn’t so crazy after all.

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