ANXIETY is the background worriment that gnaws away at your soul day after day. Anxiety is like sirens in the Big City of your Mind that never go away: sometimes they are close, sometimes they are in the distance, on the threshold of hearing. But the sirens are always there with the same message: DANGER !
LIGHTS, WAILING & FEAR
Think of anxiety as the awkward robot in Lost in Space that always warned the young, naive Will Robinson of an unforeseen and uncertain threat:
Like the robot, you might not know what the danger is, or when it will strike but there is a vague and continuing sense of impending doom. The wolves are at the door: the IRS, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, SWAT, the CDC are surrounding your compound, securing the perimeter, preparing the battering ram that will shatter your front door….
Is it possible to escape anxiety? God knows we try, in any way possible. For many, the first line of defense is the latest generation of anxiety drugs: Xanax, Ativan, Effexor, Klonopin. If you are in a mandated outpatient substance abuse program these benzodiazepines will probably be frowned upon as addictive. Problem is that milder substitutes may not be as “effective” – so how do you chemically curb the anxiety which fuels addictions without introducing new addictions? If the treatment amounts to trading one addiction for another, it can be like putting out fire with gasoline: the good news: your craving for alcohol has diminished; the bad news: you now eat Xanax and Klonopin like they’re M&Ms.
Then there is the Old School anxiety remedy of demon alcohol: rum, scotch, vodka on the rocks, port, pernod or tequilla. Whiskey and beer, have no fear… Alcohol can be temporarily effective at diminishing anxiety but if you wake up in Cleveland and don’t know how you got there, it might be good to consider other approaches. Also, the hangovers, guilt, bad judgments, destroyed relationships, prison time for your third DUI and all those parties where you can’t remember when you’ve had a better time might be clues that this is not the way to escape the wolves at the door.
ALTERNATIVE ESCAPES FROM ANXIETY
Any effective distraction can provide a short escape, take your pick: dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight, snowboarding, chocolate ice cream binging, reality TV “watchathons”, sexuality, virtual reality, violence, philosophical digressions, rock and roll, video games, caffeine, nicotine, benzedrine… anything to distract the mind away from those haunting sirens, that annoying robot, the disturbing pea of anxiety under the mattress that won’t let you sleep.
THE EVOLUTION OF ANXIETY
The ancient ancestors of modern day homo sapiens are now referred to as hominina ( formerly known as homo). The hominina were the start of the human line after the split from the chimpanzees. The early human forefathers did not feel anxiety. The hominina mind was still basically an animal mind like the rest of the great apes and animals do not feel anxiety, they experience fear. Animalistic fear is specific, immediate, clear and functional. It has survival value. Anxiety is vague, general, unclear and has no survival value. Fear increases lifespans. Anxiety decreases lifespans.
What happened? How did anxiety enter into the human story? Based on the fossil record, around 200,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans emerged. Recent evidence suggests that by 70,000 years ago, humans were behaviorally modern, displaying complex language, abstract thinking and anticipatory planning. In other words, the human brain, especially the pre-frontal lobe, developed rapidly and we started to really think and with this emergence of the full-fledged human mind came tool development, exploration, adaption to hostile environments and eventually nuclear bombs, computers and smart phones. So a former caveman crawled out of apehood to become the thriving, inventive creatures we are today, in all our glorious billions around the globe. But we didn’t learn how to turn the mind off. And we don’t really know how to control or modify our thoughts. So another part of the human legacy is anxiety.
CIVILIZATION and ITS DISCONTENTS
Freud said that neurosis is the price of civilization. To put the same idea more simply, anxiety is the price of thinking. ( or more precisely, anxiety is the price of over-thinking). So, inversely, if you want to eradicate neurosis, stop civilization – go back to the jungle. If you want to eradicate anxiety, stop thinking. As John Lennon advised in the Beatle’s psychedelic anthem Tomorrow Never Knows: “Turn off you mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying; Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, it is knowing…”
Mind Control usually conjures up images of someone else trying to control our minds through brainwashing. It is a coercive, outside influence. But self-initiated mind control, learning to control your own mind, is the most fundamental and effective therapy for ANXIETY. Any sustained practice that increases present awareness and mindfulness is a type of positive, self-initiated mind control. Meditation and Metacognition are primary examples of this.
Meditation strives to focus on a single focal point, like breathing. The focal point itself is not really important, it just needs to be compelling enough to temporarily hold our attention. The focal point is a tool to remove you for a few all-important minutes from the incessant mind monkey, the restless , uncertain thought pattern of modern humans that is churning out anxiety. By standing outside of the stream of consciousness , you can sometimes see it for the first time. It’s like someone waking up from a daydream and suddenly realizing – wow, I’ve spent the last two hours obsessing and worrying and I haven’t done anything on my list for day.
Metacognition is a fancy psychology term that simply means thinking about thinking. The idea is to avoid automatic and uncontrolled thinking and systematically review and assess your thought process. Metacognition has been applied to study habits. There are many students who study hard and wonder why they don’t pass the exam. Then there are students who think about how they study, and make changes if needed so that they study more effectively.
The idea of both Meditation and Metacognition is to WATCH the basics and BE AWARE of what you’re thinking. No, it will not stop anxiety because no one can ( or should) completely stop thinking, but we can actually control the source of anxiety and therefore greatly diminish it.