Anxiety: Illness or Teacher?

Anxiety: Illness or Teacher?

Anxiety–a considerably fearful response to a harmless situation–can be a seriously weakening condition. Everyday activities become increasingly difficult: Suddenly we can’t climb a stairway, go into an elevator, eat in a restaurant, or perform some other normal activity.

The obvious conclusion–we’re afflicted with a sinister malady–confronts us with an either/or choice: Live with the problem or find someone to cure us. And so we start looking for a kind of psychic X-ray technician who can peer inside us and diagnose what’s wrong.

I heartily approve of the search for expert help–in fact I would encourage anyone who’s experiencing from an emotional disorder to talk to a specialized. But I have a quarrel with the “I’m sick” self-label that’s so often the starting point.

When my stomach is upset, I don’t assume that my digestive system is malfunctioning. I look instead for something I’ve eaten that my stomach might be trying to get rid of. In other words, my stomach symptoms might be a sign that I’m healthy and everything is functioning typically.

(That doesn’t average, of course, that all digestive symptoms can be traced to an unhealthy meal. Sometimes drastic medical intervention is necessary.)

If I apply the same thinking to anxiety, I can ask myself if those awful feelings (we’ve all experienced them) are a sign that something in my life isn’t working. My psyche wants change–wants it urgently, wants it now.

But why is this kind of psychological experiencing necessary? Wouldn’t it be easier if my psyche just told me what it wants?

The truth is that it usually does, in a variety of ways. Anyone who’s ever experienced a harsh life crisis can usually look back at a multitude of warnings that were ignored for a long time: frightening dreams, dark moods, obsessive disturbing thoughts that clearly pointed to something gone wrong.

In his book Insearch, James Hillman explains that this warning course of action often culminates in serious psychological symptoms: “The right reaction to a symptom might be a welcoming instead of laments and demands for remedies, for the symptom is the first herald of an awakening psyche which will not tolerate any more abuse.”

Defining ourselves as sick–hopelessly sick, with a dire condition that only an expert cure–leaves us stuck in a simplistic definition of who we are: An eager (or depressed or compulsive) person who is helpless to change anything.

Hillman wants us to view ourselves in a more complicate way: We are two people, and one of us is abusing the other. Now the search is on. Who are these people, and what are they doing? (Or, more personally, what kind of struggle is going on inside me, how is it manifesting itself, and whose side am I on?)

In my experience (by no method comprehensive, but it provides a starting point), anxiety is often a sign of unlived life. I want to be respected, responsible, and normal. I refuse to concede those unexplainable yearnings for love, creativity, or adventure. If I suppress them too long, Pow! Anxiety stops me in my tracks until I make the changes my psyche is asking for.

Now perhaps this isn’t what’s happening at all–but at the very least it pries me out of the helpless “I’m sick and can’t do anything about it” stance. If I choose to seek help from a specialized (often a good idea), we have something to talk about.

Most of us are more wonderful, more exciting, and more powerful than we ever let in, already to ourselves. The challenge Hillman sets before us–to find that unknown person within, befriend him or her, and bring that person into the light–can be the starting point for a life that is high beyond our wildest dreams.

I surprise. If that challenge can help me deal with a weakening condition like an anxiety disorder, what would happen if I made a commitment to live my whole life that way?

Perhaps, after all, that’s what our psyches are asking us for.

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