Anxiety is not the enemy

Stories of pain

If you want to read an excruciatingly painful account about the havoc that anxiety can wreak, take a look at the overture in Jordan B. Peterson’s latest book ‘Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life’. With neat chronological detail, Peterson describes how, in his own words, his ‘health fell apart’ as he witnessed the medical ordeals of his wife and daughter. I remember that, when it broke out in early 2020, the news that the controversial University professor and author had found himself in an intensive care ward in Moscow for “emergency” drug detox treatment, had hit me with some force. I also know that this episode threw some of Peterson’s admirers into a sort of crisis, seeing the man struggling on all levels to overcome his dependence on a potent anti-anxiety medication.

We are not strangers

The truth is that I’m no stranger to anxiety myself, and can easily share a number of stories where she was a cruel protagonist. I don’t speak of her often, which is probably why it took me so long to put together this article, but it’s weird how people around me seem to sense the familiarity. They start talking. One woman told me how anxiety clouds her brain, and how she is not sure whether the dizziness is a product of physiology or psychology. I said the question she should be answering is whether these symptoms show up close to something she fears. The next thing is to understand what anxiety is, what are the processes that give it form, and why it works in the special way it does.  

An evil friend

Most people are aware that anxiety sits on the spectrum of fear. What they don’t always get is how useful she is. In response to a post I shared on my Facebook page The Biology of Things, in which I said I had made a strange arrangement with anxiety, one person commented that it’s an evil friend. I don’t blame her. Anxiety is a powerful force, with a powerful hold on people’s lives.

And yet it is in a sense fascinating how different people narrate their personal stories and how they describe their relationship with anxiety. In one instance, a dear friend was telling me how with the COVID-19 pandemic it is as if people expect that you have a bucket where you can safely deposit your fears and anxieties. Reminded me of Dumbledore’s Pensieve. On another occasion, a very vibrant woman, with energy leaking through her pores, briefly explained that her anxiety had nothing to do with work or other troubles – it’s simply anxiety of the existential type that keeps her awake at night. To which I replied, “No wonder, living in this world of harsh conditions is the scariest thing of all!”

One system you cannot live without

I come back to the fact that most of us have a curious relationship with anxiety. I say she is not the enemy, but I’ll also be honest enough to admit that conclusion is the result of many battles. During one of the most famous personal struggles, clearly imprinted in my mind, I chose to let her stay, probably because, I reasoned, I had become dependent on her, and the one thing I could not picture was how to live without her by my side.

It has to do with the fact that I know what anxiety is. If you think that fearlessness is admirable, think again. Being unable to experience fear means that you are vulnerable without having the advantage of a system specifically designed to protect you from danger. No one in their right mind questions the utility of the immune system, with all its aggressive defenses against things that don’t belong inside the body. Fear is a similar type of programme, intended to defend against harm, and anxiety is simply one of the modules in the system.

In a next chapter, I will try to dissect anxiety down to the elements that make it, because breaking down what seems to be a complex problem is often much more beneficial than letting it grow in the shadows to the point where it becomes too large to handle. I will speak about how anxiety sits within a pyramid, comfortably with three companions – effort, choice and consequence. For now, I’ll dwell on the fact that anxiety is a type of emotion, an evolved mechanism of fitness engineered to offer us selective advantage in those situations where we are faced with a problem we need to solve.

Start with the problem

Against this background, one of the most important insights we can derive is that we must be able to identify, with clarity and precision, the problem we have at hand. Much like fever, anxiety is only the symptom of a chain of reactions that are boiling underneath the skin, in response to an invader that threatens to disturb our inner equilibrium. It is useless to practice your lines in front of all the mirrors in the house if what really upsets you and throws you in a panic at the very last (and most essential minute) is the horror of not being able to find a parking place outside the conference hall where a mass of curious minds awaits to listen to what you have to say through yours. Get a cab, or better still, ask a trusted friend to take you.

And navigate towards the solution

Next comes the realisation that, if anxiety is truly meant to be a system for fitness, then we need to discover its value and know how to extract it. This is where it may become tricky, unless you happen to be trained and experienced as a security specialist, in which case, you will appreciate that anxiety and its related fears are nothing more than evolutionary signals and tools made to help you recognise danger and avoid harm. By running away from a situation that could land you in deep trouble. By having the discipline to do what needs to be done, whether it’s studying harder for an exam, or moving your money to a safer investment. Either way, it’s always a question of making sure that the energy that is being generated by the system, is not lost but rather put to good use. Little by little you might get to the point where you pride yourself in having one of the most sophisticated anxiety systems in town, and advertise the benefits of this solution. But maybe that’s for another time. For now, I want to go back to my original claim. Anxiety is not the enemy. The real problem is, and unless you are able to navigate the thickness of the forest and locate it, you will not be able to hit and neutralise it. Instead, you will waste your hard-earned abilities fighting the wrong tree. And that would be a real pity.  

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