A philosophical antidote for anxiety. Anxiety is a symptom of a thought process that is fundamentally based on a philosophy of life. Everybody has a philosophy of life though it may not be conscious, and it may not be genuine. That is, it may be a world-view internalized as a child from the surrounding adults. If a child hears “life sucks” enough, then that child internalizes a world view that… life sucks…
One of the more common philosophical underpinnings of anxiety is that things don’t work out; that little problems are big, unsolvable dilemmas; that small obstacles are huge, insurmountable blockages and that the smallest mistake made is equivalent to the largest failure ever committed, by anyone. These philosophical underpinnings generally manifest as ‘catastrophizing’ thought patterns. If you thought a catastrophe was about to occur, you too would be anxious. However, a catastrophe is, in fact, not about to occur, despite our internalized dialogue to the contrary.
Perfectionism is another philosophical underpinning, which generates anxiety. If we are about to approach a task such as, say, a public presentation, and we believe any mistake is a sign of failure, then a lot of energy goes into preventing that failure from happening, which manifests as anxiety. It should be noted that physiologically, anxiety and excitement are almost identical. The only difference between the two is that with anxiety, we anticipate negative outcomes and with excitement we anticipate positive outcomes.
We think in words and pictures; those words and pictures are not so much based upon what we are experiencing or anticipating in the world but rather how we interpret and translate, i.e., how we filter, that experience or anticipation through our philosophical lens. If we believe that little problems are big headaches, difficult to handle and which can easily become evidence of our lack of skill and capacity, we tend to become very anxious. If we believe big problems are challenges that can be an opportunity to exercise our creative problem solving skills and make us feel competent, we tend to have very little anxiety, and bit more excitement.
Anxiety can actually be a pathway to begin examining our internalized thought patterns and our fundamental philosophy of life, or world-view. Sometimes, anxiety is normal and natural. For example, if you were driving at night, in a heavy rainstorm, with lots of traffic, a bit of anxiety would be helpful. It would keep you alert and aware of potential dangers. Excessive anxiety in such a situation could actually increase the danger and risk of an accident. That excessive anxiety could be arising from internal dialogue and mental pictures of catastrophe, based on a philosophical world view that…. life sucks, that insurmountable obstacles occur, that huge unsolvable problems are inevitable or that “the sky is going to fall!”
When irrational anxiety arises, it requires rational, logical thinking to counter it. This kind of thinking is often referred to as evidentiary or scientific thinking. We need to look objectively at what is going on in the situation, as well as our own competencies and capacities. We need to override the catastrophizing thoughts with evidence to the contrary. Our philosophical world view, built up and maintained by our history of internal dialogue and mental pictures may be deeply entrenched; we may be emotionally attached to it and actually believe it is “the truth.”
In fact, our world-view is not the truth; it is simply what we have been taught to think about the world in which we live. Growing up is, in part, letting go of our childish world-view and adopting a more realistic, adult oriented philosophy of life. As stated in 1 Corinthians 13:11 “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but, when I became a man, I put away childish things.” An argument could be made that excessive and irrational anxiety is a childish thing. We can grow up. We can change. We can build a sound philosophy of life not based on childhood experiences and catastrophizing or perfectionism but rather based on our potential, our capacities and our competencies. As the great American psychologist William James said: “The greatest discovery of our generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. As you think, so shall you be.”