The Essence of Anxiety


Confucius; “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.”

Words are important; they are the frames and cages of what is possible. The words we use to describe ourselves and our issues are particularly important. I have a longstanding interest in the words and ideas we use in everyday language to describe our psychological experience and problems. In my opinion the ones we use most often are not always very helpful. They tend to see experience and problems as things that happen to us or that are caused by the events and circumstances of our lives. These everyday ways of thinking tend to suggest we are the relatively passive victims of our biologies and biographies. There is an alternative, one which puts us at the heart of our experiences and problems. If we see ourselves as active agents who are constantly engaged in making sense of the world, we are no longer just the passive victims of the vicissitudes of our lives. We become empowered. It allows us to see how we can begin to help ourselves and improve the quality of our lives.

For example our usual everyday ways of talking about anxiety problems keep us locked into the idea that anxiety is something we suffer from and that it is something we can at best only learn to control. But these are modern myths.

We don’t suffer from anxiety. We may suffer some distress but the anxiety is something we are actively doing. After all, we are all interested in how things will turn out for us so we are all in the business of trying to predict what might happen and how this compares with what we don’t want.

This is the essence of anxiety; predicting something and not wanting it to come to pass. These are both psychological acts that only we can perform in the privacy of our own thoughts. Situations don’t make us anxious. It is the sense we make of them that does the work. If we predict something is likely and we really don’t want it to happen we will become very anxious and then our bodies will react. We won’t feel very good but our bodies are actually reacting to what our minds are seeing. This is the healthy way our bodies are supposed to react.

If we begin to get to grips with the idea that our anxiety is something we are doing then we have the real possibility of learning not to be anxious rather than just learning to control it.

This is often easier said than done as we are often not aware of much of our thinking. We are largely unconscious creatures.  Much of what we think and do, we do by habit.

Wallas Graham; “How can I know what I think till I see what I say”.

If we want to understand the predicting and not wanting that drives our physical feelings of anxiety we will need to find ways of expressing our thoughts. As Wallas Graham suggests one way is to see what we say. Talking to someone else is useful, even if they say nothing, because we hear what we say. Another way would be to write down our thoughts.

However, when we describe our distress we should look carefully at the words we use. We should be careful not to use words that make the distress bigger, deeper, more complicated, more enduring. If we use mainstream ideas it is so easy to fix our anxiety, for example, as some fault deep within us, or as a sign of impending loss of control or even madness.  We should question the words and ideas we use and look for more active, empowering alternatives.

If our anxiety arises when we predict something at the same time as not wanting it, then as soon as we say it is not going to happen or we don’t mind if it does, then we will no longer be anxious. If we see anxiety like this it becomes a here-and-now, in-the-moment act. It is no longer a permanent and inevitable part of us, no longer something wrong with us. It becomes just something we are doing that we would rather not do. If we see it like this we can see we have some relearning to do. Unlearning old habits is hard but we must remember that learning is one of the most natural and automatic things we do providing we let ourselves. The first step is to get unstuck by describing our problems with words that allow us to move forward.

One way we can keep ourselves on track is to write down what our goals are. Make them SMART; specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bounded. We could write these down and refer to them frequently to keep them in mind and to keep ourselves on track. We could also remind ourselves of the Chinese proverb; the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. This tells us that we should plod patiently and persistently. If we do, and if we are not put off by the size of the task, we can achieve impressive results.

Guest blog – Charles Merrett is the author of The Origin of AnxietiesHis book is available in print or as an eBook on