"Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master."
-Demosthenes, 2500 years ago.
Life is dangerous. And trying to live in a richer, fuller way, makes it even more dangerous. Hence to be alive - to exist - provokes anxiety. And so we have the phrase existential anxiety. Psychological techniques cannot solve this kind of anxiety, in the sense that techniques cannot solve life. Life is a challenge to be faced (the only cure for it is death). It seems then that there are only two directions when it comes to our existential anxiety: either we face it and move forward and grow, or we retreat and shrink. Life is a kind of "hero's journey."
There are forms of anxiety that can, in some sense, be cured. If your anxiety is largely chemically based, you can deal with it through the food and chemicals you take into your body plus exercise. If your anxiety is largely context-based - say, you are being bullied at work - then you can perhaps change the context or at least leave it. If your anxiety is based on a specific trauma, such as a car accident, you can engage in psychological therapy to reduce or perhaps overcome it. These cures work because such anxiety is not essential to living, is not a consequence of existing, of being alive. In my trade we refer to it as "neurotic anxiety," in distinction to existential anxiety. Existential anxiety is different: everybody suffers it. It is a consequence of the human condition, of our vulnerability to, as The Buddha put it: suffering, disease, old age and death. Of course, like the neurotic type, existential anxiety will manifest differently in each person. Some people go to pieces, some shut down, some become aggressive, some "sublimate it" through becoming creative or wise, and so on. To complicate these matters, existential anxiety is often mixed in with neurotic anxiety. For example, being bullied at work arouses anxiety about your security here and now, but also touches on deeper, existential anxieties about being safe in the world.
I once saw a client who came for counselling because she felt stuck in life. One week she described a dream: “I was invited to make some important choices, which tricked me. I realised that I was being tricked into a dangerous situation.” She said that the word "tricked" was right - it felt correct - yet she was puzzled by what it meant. There was something important in it, she felt, because it had left her disturbed and anxious all week. So we explored what it might be telling her. She said, "Often when I make choices I feel anxiety." I encouraged her to sit with that feeling and see what was connected to it. As we dug deeper she realised that "When I make choices, I feel like I'm becoming defined and limited." I responded that some people feel relieved by that, and pushed her to look further into the connection between her experience of limitation and her anxiety. She paused again, searching, and said: "I feel trapped when I make a choice. Like maybe I'm choosing the wrong thing, and will be trapped in regret." As we went further she started to express deep and secret fears about a future where she was lonely and destitute. And also a day when she would die alone. The conclusion of this session was the real starting point for growth and change in her life through our work. She recognised that she was deeply anxious about the risks of living, the risks of choosing and creating her life. "Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master." She was avoiding the war - the challenge of her life - and so she had become a slave, stuck and unhappy. She was setting herself up for the regret she so feared. The other paradox for this client was that her avoidance of her anxiety made her anxiety worse.
When you avoid existential anxiety - the anxiety that comes with being alive - then it grows stronger, while you become smaller and weaker.
But when you face your fundamental fears, then the opposite happens: its diminishes, while you grow. This applies both to the feeling of fear itself, and to the object that you're afraid of.
Let's put all of this in positive terms. There is anxiety that is curable through medical or psychological means. And there is anxiety that comes simply from living. This we call existential anxiety. It is the feeling of your human vulnerability. In the face of this fear we find many ways of retreating from life. You and I are both guilty of that, but we are often blind and unconscious of our instinctive cowardly choices. But we can't really avoid this fear, we can simply choose how we react. We can react through some form of fight or flight or freezing. Or we can respond with courage. If you do that then you become bigger than it - braver, more competent. Of course it never fully goes away, because your humanity never goes away. You are prey to the human condition all your days.
The only way forward is through. There is no around. Life operates according to a strict logic on this point, rewarding those who are brave, and punishing those who are cowardly. You can't choose whether or not to suffer, but you can choose which suffer to endure. And the choice leads in two very different directions.