The Anatomy of Anxiety

by Rosalie Dores on 11th August 2015

Many people are drawn to Mindfulness wanting to alleviate anxiety. I have been reflecting on anxiety recently, noticing how it manifests in my own life. John Forsyth and Georg Eifert in their book ‘The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety’ (a great book if anxiety is a persistent ‘guest’ for you) define anxiety as apprehension about the future, fear of the unknown. Psychologists and philosophers speak of existential anxiety, the human predicament of existing somewhere between two great unknowns, the origin of our existence and the time of our death. Perhaps the ‘somewhere’ in between these two unknowns is the present. When one reflects on it, isn’t that all we really have.

I guess we all experience existential anxiety, this is a fact of life, a primary stress of being human. However what do we add to that? When I contemplate my experience of anxiety I perceive it as a continuum, I notice in my own experience of anxiety an underlying need to know, a desire to be in control, to eliminate uncertainty – a losing battle. I recently experienced two bouts of mild anxiety related to the uncertainty of waiting, one of these involved an experience of difficulty, the other a potential success. What is interesting is that regardless of the context, in both these situations I felt anxious, it was excruciating. What is this? How do I experience it? How do I know it? I asked myself, remembering to be curious about experiences of difficulty. I identified the experience as anxiety. Ok, now we have a concept, anxiety. What does that actually feel like? What is its anatomy? Is anxiety the same for everyone? Well, I noticed a sense of bodily and mental restlessness and agitation, a sense of discomfort, of not being at ease. My thoughts kept being drawn to possible outcomes and worst-case scenarios and physically my tummy felt slightly queasy.

It is reassuring to remember that this isn’t ‘my’ particular character trait and that scientists have identified this preoccupation with potential difficulty as an evolutionary human tendency. One that has supported us to make it to the 21st century, fearing the worst and so saving ourselves from sabre toothed tigers. However as far as I know there aren’t any sabre-toothed tigers in England and the information I was waiting for wasn’t life or death so what was the anxiety about? Well, fundamentally and fruitlessly I wanted to be in control.

So rather than wishing the experience away or fighting with it, I made the decision to be kind to myself, to become curious about the experience, to be interested about the actual situation I was in, no sabre tooth tigers here! Once my orientation became one of willingness, the willingness to experience the unpleasantness of my situation, it become apparent to me that it wasn’t as bad as I had at first thought.

In time, as all things do, this experience changed, my mind wandered off, became focused on something else. What is important is that I didn’t fuel my anxiety by ruminatively feeding it with more anxious thoughts or by trying to drown the experience out. It takes courage, heart and attitudes of acceptance, patience and trust to be with experiences of difficulty. However it is through being with these experiences that one can integrate them rather than being at war with them.

Anxious episodes, as well as any other kinds of difficulties become an opportunity to learn about ourselves, how we are, what we do; an opportunity to grow. David Wagoner captures something of this in his poem ‘Lost’ when he reminds us that we ‘Are not lost. Where ever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and to be known.’ Can we be willing to meet what may feel like an old guest anxiety and treat it as a stranger? Can we stay in the here and now of our experience regardless of what it might be. Can we trust in our own process? This wonderful story below offers inspiration to me whenever I get impatient with my difficulties. I hope you find it helpful too.

What Avoiding pain Cost the Emperor Moth

A man found a cocoon of an emperor moth. He took it home so that he could watch the moth come out of the cocoon.

On the day a small opening appeared, he sat and watched the moth for several hours, just watching as the moth struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared to have gotten as far as it could. It just seemed stuck.

Then the man, in his kindness, decided to help the moth. So he took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The moth emerged easily, but it had a swollen body and small shrivelled wings. The man continued to watch. He expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and open out to be able to support the body. Neither happened! The little moth spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shrivelled wings. It was never able to fly.

What the man in his kindness and haste didn’t understand was this: In order for the moth to fly, it needed to experience the restricting cocoon and the painful struggle as it emerged through the tiny opening. This was a necessary part of a process to force fluid from the body into the wings so that the moth would be ready for flight once it had achieved freedom from the cocoon. Freedom and flight would only come after allowing painful struggle. By depriving the moth of struggle, the man deprived the moth of health.

From The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: John P Forsyth and Georg Eifert