Thursday, December 31, 2009
Anxiety: a Disease of Significance
I think anxiety should best be thought of as a disease of significance. What the fuck am I talking about? The main obstacle with anxiety, and almost any type of inappropriate worrying is significance. We place a lot of significance on our thoughts and sometimes our feelings and end up getting hung up on them. For instance, a person might say "oh crap, I'm starting to feel this or that. I wonder what that means. I need to understand it or feeling something else because I don't like where this is going." That's the key mistake, in my opinion. If people, instead, just let things go and looked at them with a calm, inquisitive attitude, they wouldn't be so bothered and would either keep their head on straight, or recover soon thereafter. Creating too much significance is what leads people to separate from their experience and reject it. It plunges them into a control spiral, where they begin controlling their mind, and then seeing that they have become farther removed from themselves, control the controlling tendencies, ad infinitum. The solution, instead, is to just see what's going on and not fuss with it too much.
If don't believe me, good. But just picture the difference between two people. One person gets some input and judges it, quickly and subconsciously. They say "I don't like this" or "this is not the best" or "this is a bad sign of something." They then launch a campaign to force themselves into feeling, thinking, or acting like someone else. They either pretend they are someone else and practice techniques of control to get to be someone else. For example, a person who goes out to a bar and gets anxious might act like they're not, like they are supremely macho guys who disparage women (or conversely, stuck up girls who are beyond reproach), or they might start talking positively to themselves until they're become numb to their own anxiety and take it from there. They are, however, phony.
Now consider the alternative. A person walks into a bar and feels anxious. But rather than judge it, they just look at it with light curiosity. They might feel some feelings and have some self-defeating thoughts, but by looking at it with curiosity and not making it into this big huge obstacle that needs to be conquered (i.e., not creating significance) nothing too terrible ends up happening. They retain a connection to themselves throughout the storm and the severity of the storm diminishes because of that connection. By not significating (it's a word now!) they need not react, and by not reacting, they keep their cool and their feeling of self-connection.
It's for this reason that I don't always advocate going to the therapist. I get the feeling that many therapists, especially from a psychoanalytic background, feed into the significance of these experiences, thinking they have all this hidden meaning, and go on a fishing expedition for some underlying cause and secret. I think this is a gross mistake. Therapy should be a last resort if the person cannot practice letting go/mindfulness/awareness/"insignificating" on their own.
Being able to truly guide people out of suffering requires that the guide (the guru, the therapist, the mentor) know what happiness looks like. I think this is interesting. One of the premises embedded in the section above is that living well RESULTS when people don't fuss too much and let things unfold without steering them too harshly. It's a process of simultaneous engagement and disengagement, depending on the way you look it. It takes a great deal of faith to suspend one's impulse to analyze and control, especially for chronic analysts and controllers like yours truly. But without that experience, a guide can fall prey to the lures of control and analysis and lead one's followers into further analysis and further control. This, to me, is the main problem with traditional psycholanalysis, as well as the problem with most DSM junkies who believe that with enough thought and analysis, something will eventually happen. And probably, something important will eventually happen -- exhaustion and surrender, which are another, organic way of making things less significant.