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What Does My Anxiety Mean?
on turning to philosophy when medicine fails
Before I open my eyes in the morning, my mind starts to search for the object of my anxiety.1 It starts as a feeling in my body, and my analytical brain tries to attach it to something real.
“Everything is okay,” I whisper to myself, as if I believe it. I’d tattoo it on my wrist if it wasn’t such a cliche, if my body gave a shit about the words.
Sometimes I breathe in deep and then imagine I am breathing out a dark, inky smoke. Or I picture my anxiety in my head like a piece of paper that I crumple up and throw away. None of these things keep it gone for long, but I’m not sure what else to do anymore.
It’s like my brain made a map of my body while it was on fire and never thought to update the model. I feel danger like a phantom limb. Everything is okay, you are safe, you are fine. But how do I make my body believe it?
Anxiety diagnoses are spreading alongside our myriad existential threats, particularly amongst the younger generations. Very understandable reactions to an uncertain and terrifying future under extractive capitalism are being pathologized as disorder. A recent New York Times series called anxiety and depression “The Inner Pandemic”, and experts are recommending that kids as young as 8 are screened for anxiety by pediatricians.
Mine started younger than that. I learned early that it was something I should hide, so my body ate it.
I was nauseous every time I left the house; I had ulcers so bad as a teenager that eating food was excruciating. The gastroenterologist stuck a tube down my throat, didn’t find anything he’d ever seen in his textbooks, and shrugged.2 I tried yoga, sex, CBT, substances, codependency, meditation, God, mood stabilizers, swimming, and running for my fucking life. But it always comes back.
I don’t tell you this to cause despair, but to explain what has led me to the feet of existentialism. I understand what contributes to my anxiety — the links to past traumas and present threats, the chronic overstimulation of a productivity-obsessed society — but that doesn’t necessarily help me live with it.
I need to know what it means, to understand its purpose more deeply. Not to package and sell it — I won’t be writing an inspirational memoir about the invaluable lessons I learned from my anxiety and here’s how you can, too. I just need to make sense.
The existential psychologist Rollo May thought anxiety and creativity were inevitably linked. He wrote:
…man’s creative abilities and his susceptibility to anxiety are two sides of the same capacity, uniquely possessed by the human being, to become aware of gaps between expectations and reality.
In his 1975 book, The Courage to Create, May proposed that anxiety comes from the awareness that one day you will die, and creativity is an attempt to live forever. He thought that it was our ability to plan for the future that made anxiety inescapable, and imagination that amplified it.3 Anxiety is an inevitable part of the creative act, according to May, because creating something new involves destroying what came before — artists disturb the status quo.
Maybe anxiety, like forgetfulness, is the price I pay for being creative. Kierkegaard would probably agree — he thought anxiety was a side effect of possibility. He called it “the dizziness of freedom,” and compared it to looking down into “the yawning abyss.”
When existentialists talk about freedom, they mean choice — specifically, as May wrote, “our capacity to pause between stimulus and response and, in that pause, choose the response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” But they also mean deeper questions like: Who do I want to be? How do I want to live?
Possibility is both exciting and terrifying. Is the “yawning abyss” an empty void or a blank slate? Perhaps my problem is that I am frustrated by an awareness of too many possibilities. It’s difficult for me to pick sides in debates, because I can always see more than two. How could there be a right answer, when so many possibilities exist?
To make matters worse, I am endlessly curious, a value I hold very dear. I love to ask questions, almost to a compulsive degree, and it’s often misread as a challenge. This taught me to keep many of my questions to myself, to swallow them like I swallowed my unacceptable, irrational fear. Does a question unasked become anxiety?
Philosophy professor Samir Chopra writes in Psyche:
…the enquiring, questioning, philosophical being is, in a crucial dimension, the anxious being. Anxiety then, rather than being a pathology, is an essential human disposition that leads us to enquire into the great, unsolvable mysteries that confront us; to philosophise is to acknowledge a crucial and animating anxiety that drives enquiry onward. The philosophical temperament is a curious and melancholic one, aware of the incompleteness of human knowledge, and the incapacities that constrain our actions and resultant happiness.
Curious and melancholic, the writer’s two moods. As I write this, I can feel my heart pushing blood through my body at a rapid pace. There’s a nervous energy in my chest, like something is trying to be born. This is the nervous feeling I get when I need to write, a force churning below the surface.
I can’t explain this creative experience in any kind of rational sense, but I always think of the poet Yrsa Daley Ward’s description: “then you grip your heart, involuntarily / and your soul comes up.”
Her memoir is full of metaphors for bad feelings, and all the destructive ways she tried in vain to escape them:
“The thing is deep inside your linings, way down in the marrow. People have a lot of words for it. There are ten thousand names for it and you. Wherever you are, it catches you up.”
It’s a trope, the tortured artist, and I do not mean to romanticize it. The suffering is not aesthetic or vibes, it’s just painful, but it is there, and it does, as Daley-Ward says, “write poetry.” Sometimes I wonder if I would make so much art without it.
Would my “soul come up” without anxiety to ride on? Would I ask so many questions if I was certain of the answers? May thought that the creative act was an encounter with the world. Of artists, he said:
They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.
Wrestling with non-being doesn’t seem like it could ever be a stress-free activity. I am trying to accept the ghosts in my nerves, because I can’t find a way to lay them to rest. Maybe, like the philosophers say, anxiety’s haunting is inevitable, and my only hope is to make some kind of peace with it.
I used to carry a copy of Peace Is Every Step around with me as a sort of comfort. The late Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote that mindful walking “turns the endless path to joy.” If anxiety feeds on the past and the future, staying present seems like the antidote. But it’s hard, and even Thích Nhất Hạnh didn’t think you could completely be rid of it:
“Maybe you have a habit of worrying. Even if you know it’s neither necessary nor useful, you still worry. You’d like to ban worry and get rid of it, because you know that when you worry you can’t get in touch with the wonders of life and you can’t be happy. So you get angry at your worry; you don’t want it. But worry is a part of you, and that’s why when your worry comes up, you have to know how to handle it tenderly and peacefully.
…When your baby suffers and cries, you don’t want to punish him or her, because your baby is you. Your fear and anger are like your baby. Don’t imagine that you can just throw them out the window. Don’t be violent toward your anger, your fear, and your worries.”
So what do I do with my anxiety? For now, I talk about it. Stating my fears out loud to a person who loves me takes some of their power away. After decades of hiding it, sometimes it helps to just say “I feel anxious” out loud.4 I go walking in the woods. I write. I watch this Youtube video. I take a benzo when I start to really spiral. And, a la Elyse Myers, “I just do things scared.”
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In the existential view, there is no object to anxiety. This is what differentiates it from fear, which is the fear of something. Anxiety is “free-floating” (so said Freud), a formless abstract dread, which is why it especially fucking sucks.
For a long time ulcers were thought to be caused by stress, but then they found that most of the time they’re cause by the bacteria H. pylori, and everyone began saying stress causing ulcers was a myth, except there are cases, like mine, in which no H. pylori is found, so the actual answer is: it’s complicated. See Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
I am inclined to believe this link between anxiety and imagination, considering the ridiculous scenarios my mind insists on inventing for me to worry about everyday.
Trying to hide anxiety does make anxiety worse; it becomes a vicious cycle of denial and shame, where you are anxious about being anxious, which makes you even more anxious. I can’t control my anxiety, but I’m no longer trying to hide it, and at least that keeps it from snowballing.
(I just discovered the footnote feature on Substack and I will never be the same! You mean I can have sub-essays within my essays? I can add long asides and jokes without overusing parentheticals? Be still my heart!!)