Many people suffer from low-level anxiety, which produces, as one sufferer said, “a frequent feeling of dread, a sense that I’m not up to the challenges that face me, a fear that I won’t make it, that everything will crumble.”
I had this distress and tension in my mind and body for many years, starting in my early teens. The feeling ebbed and flowed through my twenties and thirties, and often it was painfully intense, particularly when I felt blocked in my efforts to be creative. I tried one “expert’s” advice, but it didn’t help: “Don’t worry about the future: Take each day one anxiety-attack at a time.”
Kidding aside, I now live for the most part in a state of considerable inner peacefulness. Though my anxiety lingered on until I was in my forties, more than twenty years ago, depth psychology provided me with insight into the source of this anxiety and relief from it.
An undercurrent of tension and stress can occur for no apparent reason. Sufferers often can’t pinpoint a cause. Some scientists believe the problem is a dysfunctional amygdala in the brain, which they say needs to be “reset”. This grouping of neurons behind our brow is a kind of processing center for our emotions. It can become overstimulated, producing anxiety from non-threatening everyday events. I believe, however, that our amygdala is only reacting to unresolved emotional issues in our psyche. In my view, these emotional disturbances or inner conflicts cause the overstimulation in the amygdala.
Often people try to combat low-level anxiety with positive thoughts. They apply logic and rational thinking to convince themselves that their anxieties, worries, and fears are ill-founded and that everything will work out fine. Sometimes this approach is helpful. Still, rational and positive thinking are often no match for the powerful irrational forces that can be churning in our psyche.
Let’s try to trace the anxiety back to its source in our psyche. Here we find a primary conflict in our psyche between inner aggression (represented by our inner critic or superego) and inner passivity (represented by our unconscious ego.) Details of this inner conflict are described in earlier posts, including “Panic Attacks Arise from Within Our Psyche,” and I won’t repeat them here. The main point is that inner passivity and inner aggression, which are distinct operating systems in our psyche, clash when they become activated, drawing us into some experience of distress, anxiety, or suffering. (Read also, “The Politburo in Your Psyche.”)
The clash of inner aggression and inner passivity produce painful symptoms such as fear, worry, anxiety, insomnia, depression, muscle tension, nervousness, irritability, and lack of concentration. Anxiety is just one of the many symptoms (including addictions and compulsions) that are produced by this inner conflict.
Anxiety sufferers frequently look for some cause in the world around them to account for their anxiety. Frequently, they blame others (a spouse, boss, or friend) who they claim is neglecting or mistreating them. Or they place the blame on, say, their working conditions or problems with where they live. As a consequence, they are likely to begin to react negatively to the one who is being blamed, or they will dislike more intensely the conditions of their life. Such misguided reactions begin to produce self-defeat and self-sabotage.
We have a chance to lessen and even to liberate ourselves from chronic low-grade anxiety with this following technique or practice:
Stop for a few minutes when you feel the anxiety (when it is possible throughout the day to do so.) Close your eyes, and try to connect with yourself. This can be difficult to do if your mind is churning and you’re unable to calm it down. A churning mind, in itself, denotes some inner passivity, some weakness on your part in regulating your mind and stopping it from gallivanting out of control, producing random, often negative and pointless thoughts and feelings. (Some meditation practice might be necessary.)
Do your best, in any case, to connect with what seems like a center within yourself. This is, in fact, your consciousness, which is quite different from your mind. The quality of your consciousness is a measure of the intimacy you have with your own self. It is a measure of your sense of goodness, value, and inner peacefulness.
From this state of consciousness, try to understand that your distress or anxiety is a symptom of the clash between your inner aggression and inner passivity. You may be able to detect inner voices that represent the thoughts or feelings being expressed by your inner aggression and your inner passivity. (Many examples of the inner dialogue that occurs between these two parts of our psyche are provided in my books, Freedom From Self-Sabotage and Why We Suffer.)
In this practice, you want to try to bring some focus to your inner passivity. Even when your inner aggression is criticizing or harassing you, it’s still your inner passivity that allows this psychological abuse to occur.
Again, try to sense that behind your anxiety lurks inner passivity, that readiness to feel overwhelmed, to experience self-doubt, to question yourself, and to anticipate your failure or collapse. You have tumbled into this inner weakness because it is an emotional default position. It’s familiar to you. In fact, you don’t quite know who you are without it. You hold on to it (or you’re unconsciously drawn to it) because, painful though it is, it’s part of your identity.
Now, of course, you know that consciously you want to let go of it. Imagine that, in the process of seeing your inner passivity with such clarity, you are acknowledging how familiar it is to you and how resistant you have been to claiming, through the extension of your consciousness, this no-man’s land in your psyche.
Just quietly see your inner passivity. Seeing it is an act of power, an expression of consciousness. In seeing it, you are infusing this inner space with your consciousness. Now the anxiety falls away because your consciousness is your connection to the truth of your great value and inner strength. Do this repeatedly, and monitor whether or not it is easing your anxiety.