"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, whether it be through achievement, love, or simply drenching oneself in experience, makes life even more dangerous. To be alive, to exist as a human being, provokes anxiety. Philosophers call this existential anxiety. Psychological techniques cannot solve existential anxiety, because life is not a problem to be solved. It is a challenge to be faced. But does this mean we must be mere slaves of our anxiety, unable to do anything more than tolerate it?
[NB this essay was written after my first few years of counselling practice, during my early 30s. I later removed all such writing from the web, for in time I came to feel that much of this writing reflected a younger me, and I had grown. Looking back over these pieces with even more distance, I feel that some deserve to be shared once more.]
If your anxiety is a consequence of not knowing what you want, or how to balance different choices or demands in life, then you can work that out and maybe overcome the problem. If your anxiety is a consequence of bad perspectives through which you panic and lose your head, then you can work on that. The personal growth you achieve through counselling, as well as the techniques you learn, help you to reduce such anxiety or even to free yourself of it. Such techniques work because such anxiety is not essential to living - it is not a consequence of your existence. It merely reflects knots in your life that you can straighten out. However, things are different with existential anxiety.
I once saw a client* who came for counselling for a time because her "life was stuck." One week she described a dream. “I was invited to make some important choices, which tricked me - I realised I was being tricked into a dangerous situation.” She said that was the right description, but she was puzzled by what it meant. And yet it had left her disturbed and anxious all week, and felt like it touched on something really important. We explored what it might be telling her. She said that "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 "making choices feels like becoming defined and limited." I responded that some people feel relieved by becoming that, and pushed her to look further, into the connection for her between such limitation and anxiety. She paused again, searching, and then responded: "I feel trapped when I make a choice. Like maybe I'm choosing the wrong thing, and will be trapped in regret." We continued to unpack this until, with tears she spoke of deep fears about a future where she was lonely and destitute, and eventually would die alone. The conclusion of this session was the starting point for growth and change in her life. She recognised that she was deeply anxious about the risks of living, of choosing and creating her life.
"Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master." This client was avoiding the war - the challenge of her life - and so she had become a slave, stuck and unhappy. This is very common, indeed we take part in some form of this dynamic: in running from something, we run into it. In this person's case, the very act of avoiding what made her anxious, made her even more anxious. And because that made her stuck and unproductive in her life, her avoidance turned her worse fears into a likely reality. Here is one of the great paradoxes of life. When you avoid existential anxiety - the anxiety that comes with being alive - then it grows stronger, while you become weaker. But when you face it then the opposite happens: its power over you lessens, while you become stronger. This applies also to the anxieties that you can solve or overcome, but it is especially important when applied to existential anxieties, those which cannot be solved but rather which must be met, faced up to.
Let's put this in positive terms. There is anxiety for which can be dissolved, because the problem can be changed. And there is anxiety that comes simply from being human, for which there is no solution. This is anxiety that comes from human vulnerability, but also from loving, hoping, from venturing into the deep waters of life and its possibilities. In both case the response to anxiety is wisdom. Wisdom at the reflective level, which gradually goes beyond ideas and intellect to become embodied, to sink into you deeply enough that it becomes part of your inner world and way of being. It shapes your thoughts, feelings, and actions, and has an impact on your life generally.
By exercising such wisdom in the face of your anxiety, you grow in a range of other strengths (virtues) and personal qualities. Consider for example the virtues of acceptance and courage. If you cannot or will not accept reality as it is, "like it or not," then you will probably experience rage, despair, confusion, anxiety, and many other ills. On the other hand, if you can accept reality as it is, then you become more able to respond to it well. You free your mind to better deal with the problem, and should the worst happen you are able to envisage other pathways, rather than absorbing yourself in obsessively kickng against in reality in a "gnashing of teeth." To move on to courage, anxiety is a form of fear, and courage is the opposite of fear. Or to be more precise, courage involves fear but is the opposite of giving into it. As you exert more courage, you become more courageous, for pushing against fear is like pushing against weights at the gym. Also, as you become more courageous, your anxiety diminishes to the same degree. You become less prone to anxiety. You become stronger. This is the ancient Greek notion of the building of a virtue: at first courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway, later as it grows stronger courage becomes the absence of fear. In consequence of this, you develop further qualities which are the opposite of anxiety: confidence, calmness, peace.
In summary, rather than avoiding anxiety and becoming its slave, you can gradually become stronger and more skillful with the monster Anxiety. A side effect of this is that you become stronger and more skillful at life in general. Anxiety is natural, and it is painful, but it can be the source of your growth into a wiser, stronger, more capable, and happier person.
A final point here is Viktor Frankl's dictum, borrowed from Nietzsche: The person who can find a Why, can find a How. The fundamental antidote to anxiety is meaning and mission, a pursuit of, and contact with, true values - through some concrete concern in life - which transcend you and your egoic life. If you have centred yourself in ultimate things that cannot be destroyed even if you are destroyed, then ultimately you have nothing to fear with regard to your self - a self whose value is now centred elsewhere. Here lies the path to true courage.
*As per tradition in stories of counselling, whenever I discuss a client all recognisable features are scrambled and replaced, in order so that not even they would recognise themselves, let alone another.