Anxiety and Freedom

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I see anxiety as a messenger, an important tool to help me know myself. Working WITH my anxiety in this way is new for me, as I have suppressed my negative feelings for almost all of my adult life…The idea here is to stop your brain from wrongly interpreting the sensations of anxiety as a threat and instead to trick your anxious mind into an excited state, the same kind of arousal you might feel if you were riding a roller coaster.

-Barry McDonagh, from “Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks”

We just wrapped up finals in the Zafft household. And this was a rough semester! It was the first set of high school finals for a 9th grader, first set of finals for a college freshman and challenging finals for the all-too-important 11th grade. Anxiety has been our ever-present companion for the past few weeks.

Anxiety is a significant issue and discussed frequently at educational institutions, at the workplace and in psychologists’ offices around the world. There are numerous philosophers and psychologists who have written volumes on the origins of anxiety, possible ways of treating anxiety, and in the case of Kierkegaard, those who have extolled the benefits of anxiety. I don’t want to underestimate the real challenges for those facing anxiety on a daily basis; however, I would like to offer a practice that has helped me and my family in many situations.

The emotions of anxiety and excitement are basically the same neurologically. It’s the focus of our emotional perspective that defines whether we experience the emotion as pleasant or negative. Therefore, as McDonagh, suggests, we can talk to ourselves, and in the midst of a potentially stressful situation, we can reframe an “anxious” feeling as an “exciting” feeling.

Last year, I told this to my daughter before she took her ACT exam; I suggested that she repeat the mantra “I am excited” over and over before and even during the exam. So, rather than being seized by anxiety—which unfortunately causes short-term memory loss—she came out of the exam confident and peaceful. This practice takes awareness and self-control and, of course, doesn’t work in every situation and for every person.

On a side note, another way of seeing anxiety was described by the aforementioned Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” By this, Kierkegaard meant that anxiety arises when we are no longer controlled by the governing or pervasive thoughts of our family, culture, or religion, and at the same time believe that there is only one possible answer. Kierkegaard, rather, believed that we should disregard any notion of outsourcing truth and instead open ourselves up to a multiplicity of life choices. In this sense, anxiety is a necessary stage of growth for the enlightened individual.

However you understand anxiety or however you experience anxiety, I encourage you to be gentle and loving with yourself, understanding that life has a multiplicity of experiences with many possible outcomes. And, if possible, try to reframe “anxious” sensations and emotions and repeat the mantra, “I am excited”…maybe it will help!

I wish you all Happy Holidays and a Merry Christmas!

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