Anxiety, which is different from a direct fear stimulus (say a spider in your bed), arises when we project ourselves into the future; by which I mean if I think about something I don’t fancy doing tomorrow, today, I might get a bit anxious about it. Of course, the time frame can be much longer than thinking about tomorrow, or it can be shorter: in the next minute I have to take an exam – that might get the gut churning.
Once you’ve made the connection you can ease the anxiety by putting yourself back in the now. That’s not to say you don’t rationalise and plan effectively for upcoming, less than pleasant events, but if you don’t want to be in the grip of anxiety the best method I find is to cognitively function very much in the moment.
All well and good, but what if you find yourself feeling anxious when you aren’t thinking about something in the future. When you are just doing some commonplace task and your mind is not elsewhere, but you suddenly realise you feel uptight, worried, angst-ridden. This is a more generalised anxiety and I think it’s possibly endemic in consumer-based societies. How to find the cause? Well, I guess perhaps you have to explore the subconscious – the list of all the things that might be on your mind, but weren’t, at the time. At least you thought they weren’t, but something must be…
And not just your own subconscious (if that weren’t difficult enough), you also perhaps need to have a poke around in the collective subconscious because, after all, you might be picking up some wider anxiety in the world. The collapse of the Euro, the rise of Nationalist parties, the increase in the price of oil ~ you are part of that too.
If I were to propound what Freud said, then this post would continue with me defining the subconscious in different ways and we would also be dealing with three different kinds of anxiety, but I don’t much find this helpful, although it probably makes life more interesting for the psychotherapist. Personally, I find the work of Joseph LeDoux resonates more; it is based on neuroscience and fear reactions in the brain (see here for his latest NY Times article).
What I find helpful in the grip of dread is to ask myself ~ are you projecting forward into the future by even a minute? If I am, I stop and I tell myself I will deal with whatever is causing the possibility of anxiety when it arises in reality, and not just in my mind. If the anxiety is some unnameable thing that has settled on my shoulder for a while, then I notice it. I whisper, ‘Hello, you again?’ and I accept it. I do not fight it or run from it, and, in the end, when it has seen what it came for, it moves on.
Is that a conversation with the subconscious?
Maybe not, but that’s as good as it is going to get.
In the writing of this post I spelled subconscious in about as many different wrong ways as it is possible to spell one word. I think it may be trying to tell me something…