The Scary Lightning Strike
Anxiety is a condition that affects all of us from time to time. Anxiety is a healthy response to stress and has an evolutionary purpose to keep us aware of our surroundings. My wife and I had an interesting outdoor outing last weekend. We went out for what was supposed to be a simple bike ride. Then it rained. Then it thundered. Then a lightning strike occurred right on top of us. I kind of knew the storm was close by how frequent the thunder was occurring, but up to that point, I had not seen lightning. This would in outdoors fun ratings be considered Type III fun. My wife is a bike rider, but she does not ride like me, nor does she bike really fast. But boy did she smoke me the last mile on the way home.
My day job is a mental health therapist, licensed in the state of Pennsylvania. Psychotherapy is a means for a person to talk through their concerns or problems with a person trained in listening, asking specific questions and sometimes challenging thinking errors. Anxiety is a frequent presentation I see often. The question begs, what is the point of anxiety? Secondly to this, when should one seek help with dealing with their anxiety?
What is the Point of Anxiety?
Paul Tillich, a theologian, and philosopher that lived and wrote in the middle of the twentieth century Existential anxiety involves apprehension about the ultimate meaning of life and death. For Paul Tillich, he believed conceptualized existential anxiety as revolving around three related domains of apprehension. The first domain is fate and death. Anxiety about fate and death concerns the absolute threat to one’s being in death and the relative threat to the self in our personal fate. The second domain is emptiness and meaninglessness. He offers:
Anxiety about emptiness and meaninglessness concerns the fear that there is no
‘‘ultimate concern’’, no ultimate importance in life that gives meaning to one’s
existence. The third domain is guilt and condemnation. Anxiety about guilt and
condemnation involves perceived threats to one’s moral and ethical identity.
In my work as a therapist, I see two types of anxieties, existential and what I call pathological anxiety. Our relationship with anxiety is complex as anxiety is a normal human response to stressful events. One way of looking at pathological anxiety is that anxiety which gets in the way of everyday functioning. This anxiety can keep one from going to the grocery store, engaging in social relationships, or even maintaining sustainable levels of work. Here, this anxiety needs professional help, at least with a person trained in psychotherapy. Sometimes, therapy alone is not enough. Further treatment through medications prescribed by a psychiatrist, a medical doctor trained in mental health is also necessary. Medicine sometimes can be a tool that helps lengthen out the fuse for clients to quiet down the anxiety enough where we can begin to address the source and function of the anxiety.
The philosophical side of anxiety is a bit more complicated. I have been thinking about Tillich and Kierkegard a lot lately. For Tillich, there is a difference between fear and anxiety, two states people seem to confuse often. For Tillich, fear is an objective measurable experience, you can measure it, you can tangibly see it, like fear of spiders. Anxiety though comes from concerns around our nonbeing.
Mid life Crisis
There is a point in a person’s life when it is posited that ego drive ebbs and all that was part of this “drive” to do more, fades away and the person simply exists to be. Coming into the second half of life can be jarring and for many of my clients, a crisis of existence. It can be the reality that perhaps there is a meaninglessness to life. You no longer feel inclined to drink all night with your friends, you no longer want to have long weekends and instead, you want to just exist with those close around you and be. Back to Tillich, “meaninglessness is an absolute concern and is about the loss of the significance of life, the future, the world, and everything.” For my clients, our work together when they present with this mindset is to help them distinguish between pathological anxiety and existential anxiety. Once this is established, we begin to look at creating new meaning, often with gold standard of therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Sometimes, the method known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is also utilized.
In closing, if you find yourself during this late time of the year or even looking ahead into the next year facing some anxieties, do not be afraid to reach out and talk to someone who can help you process these feelings. You do not have to go about them alone. There is help. Today you are victory of yourself of yesterday, tomorrow you will be a victor over a lesser foe.
Weems, Carl & Costa, Natalie & Dehon, Christopher & Berman, Steven. (2004). Paul Tillich’s theory of existential anxiety: A preliminary conceptual and empirical examination. Anxiety, Stress and Coping. 17. 383-399. 10.1080/10615800412331318616.