Thursday, October 3, 2019

How to Manage Anxiety

Among the strange ideas bequeathed us by our therapy culture is this one: we should all live in the moment. Or, in the here and now, rather than the there and then. Link here.

But, can anyone ever really live in the here and now? Doesn’t it imply that you should ignore the lessons of the past and never plan for the future? Doesn’t it imply that you are frozen… in fright? Doesn’t it suggest that you are so afraid of the future that you stop dead in your tracks?

To say that living in the moment is an improvement over anxiety requires some serious theoretical contortions. 

At least, when you are anxious you are thinking of the future. You are examining potential risks. You might believe that the risks are too great. And thus, that you should not undertake to climb the Matterhorn this weekend. Or you may decide that the risks are acceptable. And that you should. Then again, you might convince yourself that you are stronger than you really are, and thus you might undertake a dangerous mission unprepared. Pretending that you should feel no anxiety is often a mistake. And often leads to stupid actions.

As with most emotions, when it comes to anxiety, there’s too much, too little, and just right. If you see the risks and choose to act, you are showing courage. If you see the risks and allow your fears to cause you not to act, you are a coward. If you see no risk when there is risk, you are foolish and self-destructive.

Of course, there are actions and there are actions. Climbing the Matterhorn is normally classed as recreation. Giving a presentation about your latest widget is part of your job description. The calculus of action depends on duty, responsibility and character.

You might have noted that this analysis confuses anxiety with dread. It's an occupational hazard in the mental health field.

Being anxious can also mean anticipating something you might very well enjoy. You can be anxious to begin school or to attend a gala or to have dinner with the family. True enough, this form of anxiety involves anticipating, looking to the future and orienting yourself away from the past and the present. But you will not feel dread.

To manage this anxiety, you should prepare, you should organize your schedule, you should choose your outfit and do whatever you need to do to get to the church on time. As you know, some people dread their weddings. Some people are thrilled to get married. Both might be anxious, but for different reasons. 

Allow me to emphasize, when you are looking forward to an event or even a challenge, living in the moment will cause you to be ill prepared.

Anxiety should not be eliminated. It should be managed. If you dread a confrontation or a failure, you manage the anxiety by building confidence. One might say that you can build confidence by doing an inventory of situations where you succeeded despite your anxiety, where you turned anxiety into an asset, not a liability. 

We do not disparage the value of mindfulness meditation, but when you show up at the job interview you had best have more to say than: Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

It ought to be obvious, but I will say it anyway, but if your therapy involves rummaging through your memory bank to discover situations where you failed, where you were traumatized, where you did not perform well… you will be producing anxiety, not managing it.

If you need to buck up your courage, you might also choose to identify with someone who has shown exemplary courage under fire, who has overcome obstacles, who has risen to the occasion. With any luck you know such an individual. With even more luck you are related to such an individual. Rather than getting into yourself and recalling past traumas, you do better to shore up your courage by identifying with someone who has manifested it.

And yet, even a positive inventory will only affect your state of mind. It might dull your anxiety but will not build as much courage as you would gain by preparing. And by training. A well-prepared athlete, a well-practiced opera singer, a well tutored student will feel less anxious about a performance or a test. If you have aced the practice tests, you will feel less anxious.

Never go into a meeting or take a test or engage a performance without preparing.

While mindfulness meditation might well diminish your anxiety, if you are unprepared for a challenge your inner serenity will be of little value. 

Whereas most research into anxiety, as in the linked article, concerns a generalized state of dread, the best way to approach it is to specify the general. That is, to examine a specific situation in detail, to develop a plan for addressing it, to review past similar experiences, to examine the experiences of others, to engage in strenuous preparation and to understand that taking action to confront your troubles is better than being frozen in the present moment and doing nothing.

1 comment:

Perpetual Student said...

Edwin Newman wrote "Do you mean eager when you say anxious?" or something like that.