J. Edward Goldman, MFT

04 February 2013

Anxiety and Power

Hello everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here. I’ve been busy writing my book and getting all the other aspects of my therapy practice going. It’s exciting and a lot of work! Clients are coming in, one by one, contacting me through all of this wonderful internet stuff and other referral sources throughout Los Angeles. Nevertheless, I’m back and I plan on posting on here more regularly in the coming months. So please check back regularly for new posts.

Today I’m going to talk to you about one of the most important issues of our time, especially here in this new year of 2013: Anxiety. Anxiety seems to be one of the most pervasive problems of our modern age and only seems to be growing in it’s scope and magnitude. Millions of people suffer from anxiety around the world and in the US, and thousands of people are suffering from anxiety here in Los Angeles as we speak. In fact, most of the city is probably suffering from it to some degree! It seems to define the very culture of LA, like many other things, some good, some bad. Sunshine, beautiful people, traffic & anxiety.

So what is anxiety? And what is its relationship to power and to my theory? Let me tell you. Anxiety is, most simply, the embodied experiential reaction to perceived threats, a physical, emotional, psychological, social, spiritual and existential reaction to that which we are afraid or which threatens our survival or well-being on this earth, particularly in the long-term. Anxiety is similar to fear, but distinctive in that fear tends to be a reaction to a very specific object that is threatening or dangerous and tends to be a very extreme reaction to an immediate problem.

For example, as I am typing this in the library, I might suddenly be accosted by a angry, aggressive, mentally disordered individual, homeless and at the end of his rope, so to speak. The individual pulls out a knife or a gun; I recoil in fear as an almost automatic reaction. The weapon is an immediate danger to my survival, so I naturally react in fear. One can imagine throughout all of human history (and the history of our evolutionary ancestors) how the emotional reaction of fear has promoted our survival, in the most basic and primal of situations.

Anxiety, by contrast, would not be an appropriate emotional reaction to an immediate threat of danger such as an attacker. It is not an extreme, quick, or efficient enough response to keep us alive. Anxiety works in a different manner that is also ultimately oriented towards our well-being, survival and happiness as human beings on this planet. But it is oriented towards the more abstract, less specific and longer-term than fear. Anxiety, in this example, may come very well after the attacker has either attacked me, been accosted, or went on his merry way. After my fear and shock subsides and my nervous system returns to its relative equilibrium, what is left? Anxiety, potentially. Let’s say the next time I hear a sudden, loud noise that reminds me of the voice of the attacker, or the next time I see an individual that reminds me of what the attacker looked like, or the next time I see anything resembling the weapon that he directed towards me…I may experience anxiety.

With various stimuli, whether real or imagined, I can emotionally and physically react as if my body and my existence are under threat. I might notice it in the form of increased heartbeat, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, shaking legs, fingers, or other movements, a sick feeling in my stomach, nausea, worry or negative thoughts, etc. Anxiety is a more complex human phenomenon than fear that is not only oriented towards our immediate survival and well-being but also towards our ultimate survival, safety, well-being, happiness and life. Anxiety involves our awareness of ourselves as living creatures on this planet that will eventually perish despite our perpetual will to live and to survive. It is about long-term safety, maintaining our life, avoiding death and making the absolute most of our peculiar human existence.

Anxiety comes in many forms, some of which are normal and experienced by every individual and others of which are “abnormal”, “disordered”, excessive, problematic, maladaptive, imbalanced, counter-productive, etc. An example of normal anxiety would be your reaction to the possibility of divorce in your marriage when hearing about the statistics relating to divorce rates in the US; your reaction to your boss calling you to her office or learning about a upcoming work meeting; the feeling you have before talking an important exam, performing or speaking in front a crowd of people; that uneasiness you have sometimes when you are waiting in the Doctor’s office to be seen; a feeling that you too could die, or perhaps your loved ones or children, when learning about the recent deaths of others in the news; or that little feeling you have when the airplane takes off from the ground or lands, before you know that you are safe.

Examples of problematic anxiety would be the following: feeling so anxious while watching a program on television about divorce, or so anxious when your partner leaves to go spend time with others, that you actually believe–and make happen–that the two of you will split-up; feeling anxiously unable to complete your work for the rest of the day because you are worried about an upcoming meeting with the boss, or compulsively engaging in behaviors to sooth your anxiety; performing very badly on an exam in which you actually know the material because you are so nervous you will fail; being unable to speak properly in class or at work because your heart is beating too fast and you’re sweating/shaking too much; avoiding the Doctor’s office for a routine check-up because you’re afraid of what you might discover; staying home rather than going out with friends because you haven’t been to the place that they’re meeting at before, or because you’re worried about what will be said or done at the event; clinging to your children, keeping them home from school, after learning about a recent school shooting; avoiding airplanes or cars out of fear of crashing and dying; and avoiding relationships altogether because you fear being hurt again, that you cannot find the “right” person, or you worry that there are too many things that could go wrong.

These are all examples of unhealthy levels of anxiety that get in the way of life. There are various anxiety disorders that some of these feelings and behaviors might fall under, such as specific phobias, social phobias, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, etc. These must be diagnosed by an experienced mental health professional such as myself and in some cases medication might be warranted as a treatment. Many of these disorders are quite prevalent and appear to be on the rise in 2013 due to various factors. Psychotherapy and medical/psychiatric treatment are highly recommended if you feel that you or someone you know is suffering from one of these disorders. There are many resources on the internet to assist you in understanding if you have an anxiety disorder, what type of anxiety disorder and where to find treatment. I specialize in treating anxiety disorders, whether extreme, moderate, or mild cases. I have several years of experience in doing so and would be happy to assist you (see my ‘Services’ and ‘Contact’ page for more information).

My particular interest, however, is in understanding the underlying dynamics of anxiety by means of my theory. If anxiety is an emotional response to perceived threat, long-term danger, loss of safety and security and ultimately death or losing one’s precious life, what is the relationship between anxiety, power, and powerlessness? I would like to briefly discuss this with you. My entire theory will be elaborated in my book, which will hopefully be finished later on in the year.

The first human experience of anxiety appears to be birth. We are separated from our mothers, the oneness, safety and security that she has hopefully provided in her womb. We are born powerless, crying, shaking little creatures, thrown into a scary world, wholly dependent upon our mothers and anxious to our vulnerable human core. We do not cry as infants because of a specific fear or reaction to a particular object of which we’re aware. Nor do I think that it makes sense to regard our crying behavior as a purely biological, physiological, or instinctual reaction or reflex. Rather, infants are afraid of the world as a whole, some more than others; our mother or caregiver is the one thing that can comfort us in our separation anxiety at first. It, of course, becomes easier and easier for infants to be comforted in their anxiety over time. Some adapt better than others, depending upon many variables, such as the secure or insecure attachment that the infant forms with the caregiver.

Anxiety, then, begins as a global expression of the human infant’s fear of the world as a whole and fear of separation from the oneness of its mother. Anxiety can be regarded as a form of emotional protest against a state of affairs in the world which the person finds undesirable, unsatisfactory, threatening, dangerous, or intolerable. We all begin in this state as infants: it is the origin of our being, our very entrance into the world. We all enter the world powerless, wholly dependent upon another and utterly vulnerable. It is only natural that any creature would protest against this state of affairs. And that is exactly what we do: we cry, scream and protest as if we are dying, though of course we are actually experiencing the exact opposite (birth). We are being born and entering into the harsh reality of human life. And most of us don’t like it from the start! We would rather remain in the warm, comforting, safe, cozy oneness of the womb (and ultimately of nature) forever.

Some infants, just as some adults, protest against the harsh reality they are thrown into more than others. This depends upon the genetic disposition, temperament, medical condition, availability and behavior of the mother/caregiver and environment of the child, amongst many other variables. But what we are interested in here is how the infant’s entry into existence is a separate, abrupt, traumatic, frightening and ultimately powerless one. It is clear how each and every one of us enters this world as tiny little creatures, powerless as can be, disempowered from the very start, whose only conceivable form of power is crying and protesting against the quite disagreeable state of affairs inflicted upon them. Human life begins in a state of absolute powerlessness and all human beings are immediately engaged in the process of overcoming this powerlessness, of gaining control and mastery, little by little, increment by increment, from the very get-go.

This, one can easily see, is precisely the nature of the anxiety that we all deal with in our daily lives as adults. The nature of the anxiety is the same; the type, degree, complexity, coping behaviors, etc. are just different. Anxiety continues to be a form of emotional, physical, mental, spiritual and experiential protest against the daily realities of our lives which we find disagreeable or that we perceive as threatening (whether or not they actually are). Just as the infant cries when ejected from the womb because it’s colder outside of there, feels less safe, feels scarier and feels more alone (until the caregiver comforts her), we adults react emotionally, mentally and behaviorally in various ways when we do not feel okay with ourselves, with others around us or with the world/environment as a whole. Anxiety is an extremely common response in adult life to the endless amount of obstacles/threats we deal with in our environment and to the ever-expanding levels of harsh reality that we inhabit, whether social, economic, political, global, existential.

It is no wonder, then, that anxiety is one of the most common psychological phenomena in our modern world. And why so many of us are struggling with it, particularly in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles. Just as there are any number of things outside of the infant’s control and power when she comes into existence, we can all easily imagine hundreds and thousands of things in our present lives over which we are absolutely powerless and have zero control. These things trouble us and cause us great distress. We think about them, we experience then in front of our face, we respond to them, we feel, we behave; the realities go on. The jobs that we have (or don’t have), the financial responsibilities with which we deal, the relationships we have or don’t have, the medical problems we face, the political and economic factors impacting our life, the traffic we’re stuck in, the air we breathe, the weather and climate, the way that other people treat us. Unlike the infant, however, we are all very self-consiously aware of all these harsh realities that we are inhabiting, we understand them to some degree, and we adults have a variety of behaviors and coping mechanisms that help us to achieve some degree of control, mastery and power over over all these things that we cannot control, or can only control so much.

The problem is, however, that many adults have never learned how to cope with anxiety in a healthy manner and very few actually understand what it is. Many of us live in the dark as to how it is impacting our lives and what we can do to actually learn to cope with anxiety in ways that are not unhealthy, that do not contribute to greater anxiety in the long run and actually make our lives worse. People generally cope with their anxiety through behaviors such as drinking alcohol, using drugs, eating, sex and sexual behaviors, relationship dependence/codependency, nervous behaviors such as shaking legs and fidgeting, unproductive thought processes, buying things, seeking material comforts, compulsively using phones, internet, and digital technology, etc. These are the unhealthy ways that people are generally seeking power and control in 2013 over harsh realities that they either cannot control at all, can control to some degree, or can actually control but that people have convinced themselves otherwise through various cognitive defenses and distortions. We are coping with anxiety in 2013 in the most unhealthy of ways that we have perhaps ever seen throughout human history, though our anxiety is ever-increasing and though the state of the world in which we inhabit does not seem to be improving overall. Or the country we live in. Or the city/state. We must learn to cope better. That much is obvious.

That is not to say that there are not people that are learning to cope well with this anxiety-provoking world in which we live. There are absolutely individuals learning how to breathe and relax, engaging in activities like yoga and meditation, exercising to cope, trying to eat and to live with balance and to practice anxiety-reducing habits and patterns of thought. These people are absolutely out there. They have learned how to cope on their own or perhaps with the help of another. Some have sought out the help of a medical doctor or psychiatrist and are taking medication to cope with their anxiety. But very few individuals have learned enough, or learned all that there is to learn about anxiety. Most people have figured out temporary solutions to anxiety within their particular lives that hopefully do not contribute to longer-term problems. Many need or could benefit from additional help; a select few are okay coping as they are. But almost no one out there in 2013 truly understands the exact nature of the anxiety that we are dealing with in this day and age, what it means, what it says about being human and what we can do to not only engage in the basic coping with anxiety necessary to survive, but how to go beyond those basic “coping skills” to the empowering potential of anxiety for every individual and for all of humankind.

Anxiety is an emotional and behavioral attempt at perceived power in the face of perceived powerlessness. Most often, we respond to our anxiety in ways that do not actually empower us in our lives or increase our actual power. We tend to respond to our anxiety in the easiest, least distressing and most habitual of ways. As with most things in life, we tend to seek short-term solutions for long-term problems that we cannot really escape and that will likely get worse over time if not addressed. We all do this and it is certainly nothing to be judged or looked down upon. When we perceive ourselves as powerless with regard to a particular situation, our immediate response is to balance out that perception and feeling of powerlessness with the easiest and most accessible route to power that we see as available to us. It’s like getting on your Smart Phone and Google Mapping it when you need to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Who would blame you?

Traversing the same tired paths, again and again in life, definitely gets old after a while. It also gets old perpetually trying supposedly “new” things that will solve your problem or “cure” you. We begin to see that familiarity breeds contempt, our growth suffers and the short-term solutions that we attempt, rather on our own or with the assistance of helping professionals that are likely as lost as we are, only seem to make things worse and worse. Something will help in one way and then hurt in another. Our lives become trade-offs, compromises and stagnant avoidances of symptoms that are in fact potentially meaningful, signs on the road to empowerment and that could potentially change us. We do not want to simply “cope” with or to get rid of the myriad symptoms of our anxiety that affect our daily lives. It is better to work with them, to growth through them, to learn from them, to understand where they are coming from and to utilize their potential for life change and personal empowerment. This is where my theory and approach comes in.

My approach addresses anxiety in an integrative, holistic manner that incorporates the best of previous theories and approaches to psychotherapy, eastern and western philosophy, alternative healing traditions, cultural anthropology, history and common sense. Anxiety is a complex phenomenon, but needn’t require a complex therapy to address it. It is a complex problem, but the therapeutic solution to it needn’t takes ages, endless sessions, money and time. Understanding the roots and history of your anxiety is very important to your growth but is not the essence of the growth itself. Your growth is rooted in the abundant present of your life, how you are either living your past through your present or embodying the present moment itself; and, lastly, in the vast potential for the future. That is your where your growth lies. I will enlighten you about your past but not frighten or trap you with it, like some bad caricature or stereotype of a psychotherapy of the past. Mine is a therapy of the future, specifically created to address our very modern concerns.

As they say, however, history repeats itself. There is much to be learned from all of human history and knowledge. Anxiety itself is a like an ancient, heavy, rough, scratched old key that you hate to carry around with you, to be burdened with, but it alone will open the door that you must go through, exactly where you need to get in. I will show you how to carry that key around with you, to bear it, to learn how to hold and how to turn it, to open that door to the next stage of your life and your growth, rather than to just toss the key aside, or to find a lighter one that might not work or open that door as well. Anxiety is a bit of a burden, it is true. But so is life: we are caught in the middle, between two poles and extremes of human existence. Powerlessness, on the one hand. And Power on the other. Between life and death. Anxiety is a calling to growth in your life, a calling to balance. It seeks to minimize perceived powerlessness while mindfully accepting real powerless in life, to maximize real human power while avoiding false, unhealthy, destructive and merely perceived power. If managed and utilized properly, anxiety can liberate you rather than cripple you, free you rather than slowly kill you (with its powerful negative effect on the body). There can be an end to the endless stress, worrying, clinging, fretting, moving, running, consuming, abusing, using and hussling of daily life. Put a stop to it. It’s a new year!

Please contact me if you are interested in receiving help in the Greater Los Angeles Area. Thank you for reading.