Anxiety and depression have been identified as the two most common and costly mental health conditions and are often experienced together. There are indications that whenever an individual experiences depressive symptoms, he or she is always experiencing some form of anxiety simultaneously, though the reversed relationship has been found not to be the case. That is to say, persons may experience anxiety without depression. This suggests that anxiety is a particularly basic and pervasive condition, which has been confirmed by World Health Organization studies identifying anxiety as the most common of mental health conditions.
While the experience of anxiety is often difficult for a person to clearly define for him or herself–and this vagueness is one of its characteristics and difficulties–it is commonly expressed as an uneasy, somewhat fearful response to a situation or to life in general. In such a state, a person doesn’t know what is the best course of action in the face of the challenge before her. There is a strong sense of not knowing and of powerlessness, of not being able to manage. The uncertainty of outcomes surrounding all possible actions can be experienced as profoundly disturbing. It then becomes difficult to think clearly and feel deeply. The anxiety displaces almost all other emotions.
If I am experiencing such a condition, it would seem obvious to someone looking at me from the outside, that I am in need of soothing. But what sort of soothing? And what is it in me that needs the comforting? Is it the aspect of my personality that is afraid of failing, afraid of being rejected, afraid of being punished, afraid of being left, afraid of being unloved, afraid of not knowing, afraid of pain, afraid of dying, etc.? It is so hard to know especially in my heightened state when it feels impossible to focus on anything. My consciousness seems completely filled with my anxiety.
So, okay, I’m anxious. That’s one thing I am certain of right now. I tell myself that maybe I can sort of “be with” that feeling, you know, pay attention to it. Yeah, I can feel it. It’s familiar. It’s down there in my belly, butterflies. I can vividly recall that feeling in my past. I was a young man then preparing to phone a woman who was a waitress at the cafe where I sometimes had breakfast and who’s first name and contact details I’d just learned from a mutual friend. She’s gorgeous, vivacious and friendly. The phone is in my hand. My heart is thumping. I can hardly believe how I am feeling. It seems I’ve stopped breathing….
A process is taking place as I recall that event of many years ago. The feeling of that time has become present. However, I’m going to be very careful to insure the anxiety doesn’t get so strong it overwhelms me. My purpose is not merely to re-live an experience, but to understand it. For that I need some distance: I need to feel safe with it. If I need help in doing this I will talk to an understanding friend or seek professional help. I will make sure at all times I feel confident to determine the extent and pace of my inner exploration. I will feel the anxiety; I will not become it. And so this “getting-to-know” process, this being at a safe distance to observe my own anxiety gets underway with all kinds of twists and turns occurring, things I never expected. I start to learn things about my anxiety–what it fears, what it needs, where it comes from. I’m getting to know the anxious part of me whereas before I was simply intent on getting rid of it. What had once terrified me slowly begins to feel less threatening. I begin to understand it more, now. I feel more accepting of it. And it, this feeling, this part of me stuttering as it struggles to find words to say to the cafe waitress at the other end of the phone, this part that knows that it cannot long survive without the empathic gaze of one who loves it–it now feels more understood, more accepted. As a consequence of my willingness to “hang out” with it, it feels less alone, less frightened. Over time I begin to learn that it was not some missing piece of information about myself or a good strategy for scoring with girls or even finding that “special someone” that I was really looking for, and which I had hoped would cure me of my anxiety, but rather a change in my relationship to the It of me. Now that It, the experience of anxiety, can safely be accepted as part of me. My feelings toward it have shifted from fear to understanding and compassion.