02 May Anxiety and Control
Anxiety is a complicated mental, emotional, and physical human experience. There is not usually one answer or cause to one’s experience of anxiety. Philosophers and psychologists have been exploring this experience for a while now and anxiety is still mysterious in many ways. In many other ways we know a lot about anxiety – what perpetuates it, how to heal from it, even how to live with it. If you want to read a good overview of anxiety from a philosophical and psychological standpoint, I would highly recommend Rollo May’s book The Meaning of Anxiety. It is an older book but very poignant. The mental health field is treating anxiety like a disease these days and I do not believe this will help people in the long run. Again, it is a complicated problem. For many people, medication will be useful to help them function while they also explore how and why their organism is experiencing anxiety. But medication is never the answer in and of itself. One must look at how they see the world, how they see and interpret themselves, and how they live their life. One must look at their beliefs, their emotional expression, their sense of purpose, and their desire for control.
It is the latter that I want to focus on for this article: CONTROL. We all want control in our lives and some of us are better with not having it than others. Anxiety is extremely perpetuated by control. Anxiety is the organism’s belief that something is wrong, that danger lies ahead, so of course the rational part of our brain is going to plot ways to avoid that danger. We obviously do have an amount of control so why not use it? The problem comes when we don’t really know if there is danger or not. The more one tries to control all aspects of their life so they won’t experience pain, the more their organism believes danger is always ahead. If an animal always believed danger was ahead, it would eventually be paralyzed. Anxiety is a form of emotional and mental paralysis that keeps human beings stuck in a possible future that many times is never actualized.
When I say danger, I don’t mean just physical danger. It could be anything that we perceive as painful and to any degree. What happens with anxiety is that once it gets going, it NEEDS something to be anxious about. I should say your rational brain needs something to be anxious about because otherwise it doesn’t make any sense that the body is beginning to operate in a fight or flight mode. Again, once you start living your life in anxiety, your organism is almost always in hypersensitive mode, ready to protect. But in reality, there is not always something protect ourselves from. This is confusing to the rational part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) and so we come up with things to avoid, or be afraid of, that make at least a little sense.
Here is where control comes in. Do you see how one might begin to hyper-control their lives? If one begins to believe there is always trouble up ahead, they are going to be in the rational part of their brain a lot, always plotting. I call it the Central Command Center because they are always in a war zone. Life is a war zone when your organism lives in anxiety. The more you try and control though, the more you solidify the belief that you are in trouble, when if fact you are not. Control perpetuates anxiety, but an extremely anxious person believes all they do to control their life keeps them from feeling anxiety or from having panic attacks. It does and it doesn’t. This is why people eventually stay in their house (agoraphobia). If control is helping you manage your anxiety, you will eventually not go anywhere because everywhere is dangerous.
So a large part of changing an anxious life is to give up control, to let go. Ahhhhhhh!!!! That sounds really scary doesn’t it! There are many paradoxes to psychological and spiritual healing, and this is one of them. Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance, writes about a fighter pilot who lost control of his plane at very high altitudes and the more he tried to control the plan, the worse it got. He eventually passed out from the plane spiraling out of control and then woke up to the plane having righted itself at a lower altitude. Her point was that in many ways, we have to lose control before we can have control. Her book focuses on full acceptance of one’s life in the moment. This would be a good book for anyone struggling with anxiety, although it deals with more than that. But this description of the pilot is a great illustration of how our over-controlling tendencies do not always get us the control we desire or need.
The phrase “letting go” has become over-used and watered down, but if you really try and apply it to your life it can be very liberating. This does bring many people to the next issue that keeps them in hyper-control, which is that of TRUST. It can be difficult to let go with trusting something, whether that be your self, a higher power, science, rational thought, your own history, or what have you. But letting go does require trust. Even if you have nothing to trust in, trust is a choice, so if you’ve already spent years trying the control route and it doesn’t work, you might as well try the trust route and see what happens. Trust life, trust your self. I’m not saying you won’t experience pain again, but you’ll be able to enjoy your life as it is happening a whole lot better.