Archive for September, 2009

Dealing With Anxiety

September 12, 2009

There are many commonly held misconceptions in dealing with stress, fear, and anxiety.  I have gotten misguided advice from many people, including professionals, on how to deal with my anxiety problems.  In the past, the anxiety has been acute and I have turned to food to cope with the stress.  The people I have talked about this with have recommended taking up healthier activities, such as exercising, going outside for recreation, or socializing with people.  I certainly agree with them that turning to food will only result in gaining weight, unhealthy lifestyle, and more problems and stress over the long term.  I also agree that exercising, going outside, and socializing don’t contain within them the same deleterious effects that excessive food intake contains, and are in general part of a healthy lifestyle.  However, I still feel that I need to answer the following questions: Are these ways really the best ways to deal with stress and anxiety?  Are these, in fact, the solutions to dealing with anxiety?


To answer the question properly, one must first look at what anxiety and stress are, and then use reason and science to determine the best ways to deal with them.  It is widely accepted that fear and anxiety are internal instincts that we have developed and inherited universally as a species.  According to many psychologists, including Chad Lejune, P.H.D., “anxiety is not only a natural part of life, it is essential for our survival as individuals and as a species.”  Anxiety and fear served the purpose of helping us survive in times when life was not quite as hospitable to us as it is today.  Anxiety cautioned us in situations where we might have otherwise been attacked by predators or malicious members of our species had we not heeded to it.  We evolve with anxiety and it will likely continue to be a part of our genetic makeup for many years hence.  In our daily lives today, we all experience anxiety and fear.  New fears will pop up throughout the day and throughout life.  They may be stronger at times and weaker at times, but they will always be there, to stay.


The next thing to consider, given that we are “stricken” with this anxiety, is a way to deal directly with it.  To this end it seems we can turn to science.  It has been proven (and is probably common sense) that after doing something repeatedly, the human body and mind tends to tire of it (Bertrand Russell, “The Conquest of Happiness”).  Known therapeutic techniques such as “practicing” or meditating upon one’s fears seem to deal with fears in accordance with the above principle.  Chad Lejune, in his book, “The Worry Trap,” calls this technique “quite effective” in mitigating anxiety.  Known as worry exposure, the technique involves the individual focusing upon vividly imagining that the worst possible outcomes of their fears are happening to them.  This is done for twenty-five to thirty-five minutes.  At the end, other less threatening scenarios are considered and meditated upon.  Through repeating the fear and fully considering it emotionally and mentally, one tires of the fear, and it loses its previously insurmountable power over the sufferer.  The mind then loses interest in the fear, and the fear subsides.  New fears can and will arise, but they can each be dealt with in this same manner.  Over time, one will find themselves able to cope with and reduce any fear that comes their way.  Similar to exposure therapy, in which the sufferer actually places himself repeatedly in the real situation he is afraid of, worry exposure uses a similar technique to allow the person to conquer fears of potential situations or more generalized or hypothetical fears.  The long-lived and highly-regarded philosopher Bertrand Russell, though by no means a psychologist, seemed to be aware of this technique as well, stating in his book, “The Conquest of Happiness:”

The effort of turning away one’s thoughts is a tribute to the horribleness of the specter from which one is averting one’s gaze; the proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar.  In the end familiarity will blunt its terrors; the whole subject will become boring, and our thoughts will turn away from it, not, as formerly, by an effort of will, but through mere lack of interest in the topic.  When you find yourself inclined to brood on anything, no matter what, the best plan always is to think about it even more than you naturally would until at last its morbid fascination is worn off.


To answer the original question, I will compare the method of dealing with anxiety through recreation or socializing to the method presented above and determine if those methods are, in fact, better than the above method. 


Upon first glance, it seems that these are good activities in general and may reduce anxiety over the long term in one’s life.  There is in my mind, however, a problem with only dealing with anxiety in the manner recommended by my friends and professional counselors.  The difficulty with these solutions is that they each involve using only the outside world to solve a problem which is internally produced.  The sufferer’s problems are internal.  They are a result of the individual’s inability to appropriately choose a useful response to stressors in the environment which would mitigate their affect upon him.   


The problem with addressing the problem in this manner can be quickly seen with a little “thought experiment.”  (I’m sure many have done this in real life as well.)  Upon going out for play to deal with their anxiety, one of two things results: either the person is distracted by the play for the portion of the play, only to find upon return that his fears come back, perhaps worse than before, or the person goes out for play but finds that he is unable to enjoy the activity because it isn’t sufficient enough to distract him from his overwhelming fears.  The fears themselves are in no way dealt with.  They are not reduced and will come back as all fears do, just as strong as before.


While turning to the outside world does not contain within itself the potentially harmful aspects of turning to an addictive substance, such as food or alcohol, it also does not contain within itself any component that deals specifically with reducing the anxiety itself.  Furthermore, there is an uncontrollable environmental component which could further delay the suffering individual’s ability to recover, especially when the solution involves talking to and following the advice of people or friends who are not professionally or scientifically schooled in dealing with anxiety or worse, have malicious intentions.  There is also a time component involved in this method which does not reduce itself as time goes on.  Since the fear itself is not reduced because it is never addressed, it is likely to come back just as strong the next time.  It will come back, and it may come back worse than before, as fears tend to escalate when nothing is done about them.


There is no doubt that recreation and socializing are a positive component of any life if partaken in the right amount over the long term, and will lead to a healthy mind because they are part of the balance of human pursuits.  Therefore, I see no reason to exclude them as a part of the recovery process, just as I wouldn’t exclude eating properly and getting the proper amount of sleep.  Nevertheless, they are not, in my opinion, the key to coping with anxiety itself.  Something above and beyond living a normal healthy life in all other aspects needs to be done – anxiety itself needs to be addressed.  In looking at the causes of and the nature of anxiety, it is clear that one must first be able to master their fears internally in order to obtain the keys to freedom from it.  At this point, the entire external world will be theirs for the taking, if they so choose it.