The Many Faces Of Anxiety

Some level of anxiety is a natural part of living. It keeps us tuned in to our environment so that we can recognize both dangers and opportunities. Anxiety dances with excitement in our nervous system; each playing their own role with how we intentionally direct ourselves towards the world, our environment. Irving and Miriam Polster, authors of “Gestalt Therapy Integrated” Said this about the subject; “ Excitement that is not realized is transformed into anxiety.” While I think this is sometimes true, anxiety has many faces.

Anxiety is a vague manifestation of fear. Social anxiety, for instance is usually connected to a fear of humiliation. We might fear we won’t be able to find the right words or will be clumsy and in some way humiliate ourselves. Anxiety always points to future events that will, at least in our mind, devastate our place in the world. Many, especially younger clients come to me with anxiety about the future of the planet due to global warming. Their concerns about the future have to do with real possibilities, even probabilities that civilization is facing turmoil in the not too distant future. You may recognize the balancing act required as we gaze into the future in terms of climate change. Some anxiety can motivate us to come up with solutions. Too much anxiety can lead us  to freeze and hope it all magically goes away.

I recall a study I read while in music school having to do with performance anxiety. The researchers looked into the levels of self-reported anxiety with students about to perform during recital hour compared to rankings of performance quality by students attending these recitals. It turns out the self-reported anxiety levels vs quality rankings operated on a bell curve.  Students that reported no anxiety at all got low rankings on their performance from the audience. As the levels of reported anxiety increased the rankings from the audience improved until they reached a point, which would be the top of the bell curve. At this point as the self-reported anxiety increased the rankings from the audience got worse. The best performances happen when one is able to transform anxiety into excitement.

The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre describes two types of anxiety in his seminal work “Being And Nothingness”. The first, neurotic anxiety results from “bad faith”, or a denial of our freedom. Bad faith, according to Sartre is a lie we tell ourselves about the nature of consciousness. In order to feel secure we attempt to think of ourselves as fixed and solid; He calls this the attitude of seriousness. Of course we are not fixed and solid, we are free to chose our reactions and our behaviors.  My colleague Betty Cannon at the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute likes to say, “We do life, life doesn’t do us.” Our illusion of solidity is always under threat of becoming undone. The world is constantly reminding us of the truth of our freedom. We therefore live in a constant state of anxiety around the inevitability of the unraveling of our illusions.

The second, existential anxiety results from the acceptance of our freedom. We are not fixed and solid, a thing among things. We therefor do not know who we are or who we will become. We are nothing but unfolding potential. The founder of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls breaks the word “nothing” down to no-thing.  We are free, as Sartre put it, “We are condemned to be free.” This is anxiety provoking because we want the security of knowing. So we run away from existential anxiety right into the arms of neurotic anxiety.

We are not, however condemned to stay in this cycle of existential/neurotic anxiety. Sartre describes the outcome of existential analysis as the rejection of the spirit of seriousness and the acceptance of our freedom. Perls says something similar about the trajectory of Gestalt Therapy. He describes the process of pealing away the illusions of solidity, or reification and reaching what he call “the fertile void”. The fertile void is a place of no-thingness where we are pure potential.  We are unencumbered by any fixed view, or image of ourselves or who we are supposed to be. We are doing life, life is not doing us.