Anxiety, my new, awkward friend

I’d like to share something about anxiety that I have come to understand over the past months which I like to share, hoping it might be helpful to some of you.

As most graduate students I know, and indeed many fellow millennials, I often struggle with anxiety. That nagging feeling of uncertainty, stress, discomfort, that often distracts me from doing the things I set out to do and that, frankly, makes it hard to enjoy life. It is often so vague and undefined that I can be ashamed of feeling miserable about it, considering the types of “objective” hardships that many other people go through, such as oppression, hunger, disease, death. I used to think I just need to get my act together, push through, and eventually I will feel better. Long story short, I saw anxiety as something bad, something to rid myself of.

I no longer see it that way. Now, I treat my anxiety as a mentor, a partner of sorts, a good spirit, a true friend that tells me the truth even though I may not want to hear it. Don’t get me wrong, this friend is awkward and a huge party pooper. But still a valuable one.

My anxiety helps me in two important ways. First, it’s a tell-tale that I am off-track with something. I do believe that there are right things and wrong things that we could be doing with our time on earth, and too often, most of us, me included, do the wrong things. Like spending the majority of our time working a job (or preparing for such a career) to earn enough money to approach a bourgeois middle-class lifestyle (and than needing the rest of our waking hours decompressing) while forgetting to attend to the emotional and spiritual needs of ourselves and the people around us. Probably not a good thing to do and yet the trajectory of most. So my anxiety is that red flag that is hoisted when I’m off-track. Unfortunately, it really is just a red flag. It will not tell me which of the many things I am doing is the one that caused it to give me that warning, nor does it tell me what the right path would be. So I still need to do a lot of introspection (meditation, walks, conversations, counseling, fasting, etc.) to figure these things out, but my anxiety is a gentle (or sometimes not so gentle) reminder that I still have work to do in this regard. Ultimately, I see it as an act of love, though, because aligning my life with what I perceive as my purpose in life is key to my happiness, and isn’t that what we all should be striving towards?

Second, my anxieties are reminders that some things in my life are objectively shit. Some of these things are relatively evident, like some unresolved conflict with a loved one. Some are less obvious, like the profound lack of true community and solidarity in our capitalist society, imminent climate catastrophe, reemergence of fascism, a deep sitting feeling of uprootedness. The point is not to mistake the anxiety for the problem itself. Shooting the messenger will not solve the problem. So instead of blaming my anxiety, I should be blaming all these issues mentioned above, or better still, turning my energy towards working towards a solution of these things, or if that is impossible, finding other, conscious ways of coping with them. Anxiety is uncomfortable. So is fascism or deep conflict. Trying to be comfortable in the face of these issues is just plain ignorant and might even deepen these problems instead of solving them. It is time to accept discomfort and use it creatively. Becoming conscious about this type of anxiety also moves away my focus on these issues as something that is my personal problem, something that I have internalized the blame for my discomfort. No, more often that not, these things are societal issues, or at least interpersonal issues, that I might be part of, but that are also beyond my sole individual responsibility. I will no longer blame myself for feeling uncomfortable about oppression, violence, climate change, other people’s avoidance of relational problems, capitalism and what have you.

Do I need anxieties to show me these things? Probably not. A good friend that hugs me when I feel shaken up by the distressing truths they are reminding me off would probably do the same result with less pain. In an ideal world we would have lots of people around us that help us coping with this discomfort and make us feel less powerless when facing it. In fact, those people are around more often than we think but we have forgot to reach out for them and admit to our own vulnerability. But meanwhile, I appreciate my anxiety as perhaps the ultimate ally on my path towards living a more truthful and purposeful life in a world that bombards me with temptations to rather use my precious time and energy to make someone else richer and more powerful.

Now, I’m not a psychologist and there are probably instances of anxiety that are pathological, that is to say, not rooted in some actual problem that deserves our attention. Anxiety of being anxious. A self-perpetuating loop that can only be remedied by some kind of psychiatric intervention (whether medically, psychotherapeutically, or ceremonially). I also don’t mean to say that one should dwell on one’s anxieties. Going back to the party pooper analogy, you don’t want to be around that person all the time or else you are bound to feel miserable forever. Just take their advice and then move on towards what they have told you and focus on resolving that situation. Finally, it is not always the right moment to face our inner gloom. We do have to function in the real world, we have to make ends met and secure our survival. For those moments, I welcome all the anxiety-management techniques out there – meditation, sports, arts, masturbation, video-games, the odd joint, whatever helps to move on. I just need to remember that nothing of this will actually solve anything, it only gives me time until I face what I need to face, or until I break down.

This is hard stuff and I get the temptation to somehow avoid anxieties, either through denial, medication, or even excessive, that is never-ending, coping techniques. But I doubt this is feasible in the long run. Bottling up everything that makes me feel uncomfortable is just bound to burst that bottle eventually, burnout, depression, violence, addiction, suicide, or any other type of mental breakdown. But perhaps even more importantly, anxiety can help me on a path towards more happiness and peace if I start listening to it and trusting myself that I am able to cope with its messages. Anxiety, I no longer run away from you. Let’s sit down and have a tea together (but stay away from my party, FFS!).