HOW TO APPROACH THE PROBLEM OF ANXIETY (IN 5 STEPS)
What’s the best way to understand anxiety?
More specifically, how can “regular people” – that is, individuals without advanced degrees in psychiatric professionals or academics – reach a better understanding of a topic as complex as anxiety?
A 5-Step process might help.
The First Step would be to avoid the classic mistake of oversimplifying the problem.
Some theorists explain anxiety (or “explain it away”) by offering a single, bumper-sticker-sized, one-note non-explanation to the problem.
For example, they might say that “anxiety is nothing but a chemical imbalance.”
Without a deep dive into the flaws of platitudes along these lines, this kind of overly narrow approach is, in a word, “reductionistic.” It reduces anxiety down solely to the level of mere biology, assuming a materialistic worldview, often implicitly, without openly arguing its case. This can quietly and invisibly limit the view and scope of both diagnoses and treatments. It’s akin to saying, “Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter dash are due to knee movements.” It’s technically correct in certain narrow ways while offering almost no genuine insight. It ignores the greater and more critical context and often narrows our approach to the problem to a single, dead-end angle that’s obscure, constricting, and exclusively focused on the non-essential.
Step Two, after avoiding the “single perspective” mistake, moves in the opposite direction.
It approaches the problem of anxiety by way of multiple perspectives.
A social scientist will approach the problem of anxiety differently than a novelist. A philosopher will approach anxiety differently than a theologian. Approaching the problem solely as a biologist (as described in Step 1) would speak an entirely different language from someone who approaches the problem as a psychotherapist. And so on.
So, a much better approach would examine anxiety from multiple angles, including:
This approach offers clear advantages.
That said, it can also be challenging. Clearly, the above involves a lot of work. Most of us “regular people” simply don’t have the time or resources to launch a multi-pronged investigation into all of this.
So, Step Three would mean finding a trustworthy guide.
A reliable mentor would ideally be someone who has already done much of this work. That individual would also be honest and open about any agendas, ideologies, or hidden assumptions that might color or skew the effort. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel in these areas.
That individual would help us navigate through the realms mentioned above like a tour guide, summarizing key points and insights while – perhaps more importantly – leaving everything else out. (Since we’re living in the Information Age, this step of condensing the essential information and culling the rest is critical.)
The psychologist Rollo May, for example, could be a good mentor.
Step Four would involve dealing with the paralysis that results from Steps 2 and 3.
Having explored anxiety from multiple perspectives – philosophy, literature, biology, psychology, and so on – the result is very likely a much wider and more comprehensive view of the topic.
The problem at this point is now making sense of it all.
Often, none of those perspectives would seem to fit together. Many of them would seem to contradict. No single perspective would seem to offer the full picture.
The results at this point can be overwhelming, and the entire effort can easily stall out here, dead-ending in a conclusion along the lines of, “A says B, C says D, and X says Y. Who knows?”
The challenge then becomes understanding how these different viewpoints fit together. The hope is for a synthesis that envelopes and unifies the multiple views into one seamless whole. This wouldn’t mean one single narrow perspective dominating all other narrow perspectives (the biologists dominate the psychotherapists, for example) – but would instead be a single, overarching “meta-perspective” that includes, unifies, and offers context to all views.
For example, our tour guide (e.g., Rollo) might write a single book (such as The Meaning of Anxiety) in which he navigates all the areas mentioned above, digests the entirety of it, and then ultimately boils it down to a synthesis – a seamless whole that incorporates all of the prior perspectives on anxiety. If he’s exceptionally helpful, he might even work to state the key idea in a single sentence – a highly condensed nugget of information that summarizes vast amounts of data in just a few words.
For example, he might say that “…anxiety is the experience of Being affirming itself against Nonbeing.”
At that point, Step Five would involve making sense of that little phrase.
For example, May might clarify that the word “Nonbeing” refers to “that which would reduce or destroy Being, such as aggression, fatigue, boredom, and ultimately death.” And further, “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.”
That is progress.
But we might want to restate the issue in even simpler terms.
For example, we might decide that anxiety is about death of the self.
At this point, we might need to clarify further what that means. For example, we could note that our “self” in this sense isn’t merely the physical body. We often define our “self” in various ways (by the size of our social media following, for example, or by our status symbols), which can set us up to feel threatened by “death” in various forms (anxiety) – or not.
And further, “death” isn’t merely the single event that marks the end of our physical bodies. It’s the end of anything – for example, the death of a company, or movement, or marriage, etc. But in this case, it involves whatever we consider to be our “self.”
The effects of a potential “death of the self” can profoundly influence our daily lives. For example, if we define our “self” entirely by our wealth, then our “self” becomes threatened by any possible threat of losing that wealth. (For some individuals, a loss of wealth would be a form of death – the death of a certain identity, social status, and way of life). We experience this “threat” as anxiety. In this example, any threat to our wealth – say, a dip in the stock market – would cause us anxiety. For anyone who didn’t define themselves by their wealth, a dip in the stock market would be meaningless, aside from the purely financial aspects.
The solution to anxiety, in this example, would involve consciously defining ourselves in ways that wouldn’t cause us to feel constantly threatened by death. (We can define ourselves in ways that make us less prone to anxiety). Defining ourselves in certain ways sets the stage for a fragile identity – a self that is constantly feeling threatened by death in various forms – or the opposite.
When it comes to the self, each of us has some say in the matter.
“So, what do we do now?” we might ask.
These steps, if they’re even roughly on track, can potentially clarify at least certain aspects of both the problem and solution. If anxiety is about the death of self, then overcoming anxiety means solving the problems of 1) self and 2) death.
But those can be pretty big problems.
How would we “solve” them?
Luckily, once again, we aren’t starting from scratch.
One particular realm of human endeavor has specialized in addressing both of these problems. This venture focuses on figuring out answers to the questions, “How should we define the self?” and “How can we solve the problem of death?”
That discipline is the area of genuine religion, or spirituality.
Obviously, the word “religion” often comes loaded with preconceptions and baggage that can make communication difficult. Approaching these areas in a way that’s fresh and clear-eyed can be a challenge. That said, the key element concerning anxiety at this point is less about a specific tradition or dogma than “existential fitness” or “experiential spirituality,” which focuses on the development and transformation of the human being. The focus at this point is on who or what a human being becomes – that is, becoming the kind of person who rises to the challenge of overcoming anxiety – facing it, engaging with it, and ultimately transforming it.
However we might label it, serious and intense efforts across thousands of years have focused on what amounts to substantial solutions to the problems of identity and death – or in a word, the problem of “anxiety.”
If anxiety is composed of “the self” and “death,” then genuine religion is meant to point us in the direction of what lies beyond the self or ego (or the “selfless”) as well as what lies beyond death, which would be the “deathless,” or what some would call the “eternal.”
If this analysis is correct, and this remedy effective, then the looming shadow of self and its grim fate would vanish – and anxiety would as well.
And with anxiety gone, what would remain, it seems, would be a life of joy.
The above is essentially a Table of Contents, or a “map.”
It's a quick overhead flyover of a broad path and its five phases.
The longer and more detailed version - which walks that path, step by step, and includes a condensed summary of The Meaning of Anxiety by Rollo May - is here: