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pastedgraphic.jpgPsychotherapists invariably equate anxiety with stress, but they are not the same. There lies the problem! Stress is merely physical tensions and emotional strains. A number of things can produce stress, including anxiety, worry, fear, anger, interpersonal conflicts, overworking, disease, and all of the other negativities, threats, and challenges, intrinsic to human existence.


“The Scream,” by Munch

What, then, is anxiety? We know what it feels like. In its pure state, it is experienced as the kind of nauseous vertigo we might feel, were we to gaze into an immense abyss. Ever look over a cliff and feel a little queasy? That’s pure anxiety. Anxiety, though, also has a cognitive component, for when we are anxious we are perceiving something about ourselves. According to the existentialists, what we are perceiving is our unreality! It is like looking down and noticing that we are not standing on anything. That terribly unsettling perception makes us anxious.


Having conflated stress with anxiety, therapists seek to alleviate it with behavioral therapy, drugs (like Prozac), relaxation techniques and other forms of “stress management.” But any therapy that treats the physiological manifestations of anxiety, without addressing its cognitive dimension, retards a person’s emotional and spiritual development. One can run, but one cannot hide, for there is an inexorable truth to anxiety.


Kierkegaard had brilliant things to say about anxiety

To better understand anxiety, we should also distinguish it from fear, which focuses on future possibilities. We either fear that we’ll fail to achieve our plans for happiness or that events will conspire to rob us of the happiness we possess. In contrast to fear, anxiety is the encroaching awareness that nothing can be a solid foundation upon which to secure our existence. After all, everything — not just life’s pleasures, but our traditions, beliefs and values too — are transient and relative. Without a solid and enduring ground, “…our life is as shaky as a fiddler on a roof,” to paraphrase the musical. That shakiness registers in us as anxiety. Anxiety, then, is the perception of our nothingness. It is — as both the existentialists and the Buddhists contend — a terrifying glimpse into the truth about ourselves, our world, and of the human condition. According to Freud, we seek to transform anxiety into fear. At least fear has an object, something that we can take measures to avoid. But anxiety, according to one existentialist, attacks us from all four sides at once. Our worries and fears might be considered to be a repressed anxiety.


Dreadful though it may be, anxiety is of divine origin, for it is the dawning of the light. It is a rite of passage between who we presently are and the truer, freer, and wiser person who we can become. Kierkegaard suggests that anxiety is the possibility of freedom. We both desire freedom and yet dread it. Hence, he writes: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” T.S. Eliot observes that “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” The most exciting and creative periods of our lives are, indeed, those rare occasions when everything seems up for grabs, when nothing is certain. Only then, are we really open to the truths that the universe is seeking to impart to us. Such periods of life transition are invariably periods of anxiety.


It has rightfully been said that if we wish to discover new lands, we must be willing to lose sight of the shore. To be a Columbus of the spirit is an inspiring notion, but one fraught with dread. Anyone seeking a fulfilling life must, though, allow anxiety to be their guide, for anxiety leads to the true object of desire, namely the self-knowledge that liberates the soul. Here, then, is the paradox: when we stop running away from our anxiety, but instead listen to what anxiety has to say to us, we become less anxious and begin to know inner peace.


Feeling anxious? Dr. Dillof offers philosophical counseling, by phone and in person. For information, call him at: (607) 723-2663 or e-mail him at mdillof@verizon.net. The telephone can allow for an intense conversation. Why, then, drive to a session — in the rain, snow, cold and dark — spending money on fuel? No matter what part of the globe you inhabit — from New York City to Los Angeles, from London to Tokyo, from Binghamton to Ithaca — distance is no barrier to an illuminating talk with Dr. Dillof!