The Age of Anxiety

Man feeling anxious
Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels

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So for this month’s blog, I thought it would be quite an interesting thing to do to turn a little of our attention, just for a while, towards perhaps the master symptom, one might say the biggest percentage of people presenting for therapy, for counselling, for all kinds of interventions across many parts of the world it would appear, is anxiety. So I thought we’d  turn our attention to anxiety to ponder and wonder aloud as to what exactly it is, why this might be happening, and to begin to address some thoughts around how then shall we respond, given that this is the case. 

I’ve borrowed the title for this blog from the poet, W.H. Auden, the famed and esteemed English poet of the 20th century, who coined the phrase, “The Age of Anxiety”. He used that as a title for a long poem that he wrote between 1944 and 1946, so in the peak kind of years and the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, to give it its full title. So that’s the title that we’re working with. It’s become something that’s entered the language, the Age of Anxiety, as a kind of epithet for the time we live in. You know, if we’re not calling it the Anthropocene era, perhaps the Age of Anxiety might be an alternate title for that. 

What is Anxiety?

So let’s think about anxiety itself. What is it? Well, as always, for me, some of the clues are in the word itself. So going to the etymology of the word anxiety, we find that it’s used in English from about the 1520s, and its meaning at that time was something like an apprehension, a danger, a misfortune, an error, an uneasiness of mind. It has something pointing towards uncertainty, which seems like another key component, and in the language of the 1520s, it depicts someone who is experiencing a restless dread of some evil, which is a potent formulation – a restless dread of some evil.

The word itself, anxiety, obviously has Latin roots. So it comes from anxietatem or anxietās which often gets translated as “anguish, solicitude, unease, trouble of mind”. The root of that, in its Latin form, comes from angere or anguere, which literally means “to choke or to squeeze”. And figuratively means to sort of cause distress, to inflict torment upon someone. So tight, painful, constricted, squeezed, all become components of this word anxiety. So it begins to give us a little background clue to some of the processes that might be in play. 

What does anxiety feel like?

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893), National Gallery of Norway

When we experience anxiety, and certainly at the level of the collective when anxiety is being experienced, there’s a choking, there’s a squeezing, there’s a contraction, a constriction. And of course, if you translate that into the human body, it typically begins to feel like an effect at the level of our breathing. Our capacity to take in breath, to breathe to exchange the gases that allow our life to continue, feels compromised, feels threatened. And perhaps, if the symptom were to become intense enough, we might experience something like a full blown panic attack, which of course would mean our breathing becomes incredibly dysregulated, maybe incredibly shallow, maybe there are long gaps between remembering to breathe at all. 

And this disruption of the breath itself has an effect not just on the body, although clearly it does. People often mistake that for “I’m having a cardiac arrest, I’m dying”. That’s how potent the effect of anxiety can be but it also clearly affects the mind. We lose the capacity for rational thought and we quickly go into fear, into fight or flight type responses, and we find ourselves in this escalating spiral of distress that is very difficult to engage with. It could even feel kind of contagious in certain settings – fear that ripples and spreads, or at least distresses those who are witness to it in an individual. 

How to deal with anxiety

Of course, just to address that point directly, where someone is experiencing a panic attack, or where perhaps that’s happening to us, the single most directly effective response to that in the moment at which it’s happening is to once again take control of the breath. So how do we do that? Well, often, that would be described as perhaps recognising what’s happening to us and choosing to breathe, to take a deep settling breath, to interrupt the shallowness of the breathing or the rapidity of the breathing by taking in a much deeper breath. The kind of apocryphal breathing in and out of a paper bag intervention that basically dramatises and adds a prop to that very intervention can be very effective.

Helping someone to take control of their own breath has the effect not only of calming the body in time, but also of allowing the mind to kind of re-enter the present dialogue to bring back online our rational cognitive function so that we can begin to think again, we can begin to communicate again, we can begin perhaps to express our needs – “Could somebody please get me a glass of water? Could somebody please call someone to come and pick me up or help me?”. Or indeed, we might apply that to ourselves – “I can now tell you what it is that I think caused me to enter into this panic mode”. But sometimes that isn’t possible,. of course. Sometimes we don’t know why. 

Assagioli’s Egg Diagram – A model of consciousness

And certainly, thinking collectively for a moment, the search for a cause becomes kind of overwhelming in itself. In other words, when we look for a cause, we find so many potential causes – the responses already being overwhelmed, there’s a meta crisis, as some people would describe it. And so the anxiety we’re feeling may reside, as it were in the field itself, or in the unfelt dynamics of the field itself. And at that level, it functions as a kind of fear energy, looking to be expressed, looking for some sensitive person to pick up on an aspect of it, give it voice, give it articulation, ideally, to metabolise it, to transform it, to release it. Frequently, that process gets stuck or gets arrested as it interacts with our own consciousness or with our own pathology, or with the things in our own life that already feel prone to anxiety. So we’re engaged here in this interaction at the personal level, at the interpersonal level, and at a level that works with the collective energies of the time, which in effect takes us into transpersonal dynamics. 

So one thing that one might observe about this from a strictly Psychosynthesis perspective and holding in mind, for those of you that know it, the vision of the egg diagram, as described by Assagioli, is to begin to wonder, “Where is this anxiety happening within me? Is it a flaring of something that connects with an unresolved part in my lower unconscious? Is it more the case that it’s co-opting an energy that persists in my middle unconscious, that is sort of available to my daily range? Something I carry with me? Or is the anxiety, as it frequently is, future oriented? Is it actually perhaps in my higher unconscious, but it’s distorted in terms of a fear for that which has yet to come to pass or may never come to pass?” And, you know, we all know from our own experience and lives that those examples are very vivid and exert a huge, taxing demand upon us and upon our energy, and they also function very deeply at the collective level. 

Anxiety in society today

So just to bring this into the concrete world, I was looking at some newspaper articles kind of reflecting on anxiety just as a random sample, certainly not a scientific sample, but what I happened upon was taking a kind of business view of the impact of anxiety on the workforce. And, quoting figures, this would have been in January of 2024 in the UK, that 6% of the workforce at any given point is not at work because of anxiety. And the effects of that rippled through the economy is the thrust of the article. So this translates into 822,000 people each year being affected by anxiety. That impacts their work, so there’s the threshold for registering, which is estimated to cost businesses 8 billion pounds per year and the loss of 17 million working days. 

So I’m not particularly interested in those numbers other than they sound probably under estimates to me of what the real picture might look like. But nevertheless, they are quite big numbers, aren’t they? They’re quite compelling. 8 billion in lost business activity, and 17 million working days lost to anxiety every year. So even if they’re accurate, they’re still big enough to be taken seriously. The article, of course, frames all of this in broad brushstroke ways as having to do with post COVID experiences, anxieties arising to do with things like climate change, the cost of living crisis, the apparent structural crises within things like the family as an entity within society, uncertainties around employment or the continuation of employment. And I guess one could add to that fear  of war, either already existing wars or future wars, which are on the same pages of the same newspaper being kind of proclaimed and trumpeted. So there are enormous ironies in the way that these things show up and are reflected upon at all, to the extent that they are reflected upon at all. 

There was also an article within the same edition of the newspaper that reflected upon people who got dogs during the pandemic lockdowns and how the veterinary profession, certainly in Britain and perhaps in other places, is noticing a huge spike in anxiety among dogs who weren’t socialised with other dogs or indeed other humans because of the lockdown experiences, and so skipped certain developmental stages within their kind of puppy hood, you might say. So that’s interesting, too. But there are registrable mammalian signs of anxiety even in our pets, if we take that seriously. 

So whichever way we cut it, and if you talk to people within health services, health providers, wellbeing services, certainly counsellors, psychotherapists, people working in schools, in the justice system, and on and on and on, anecdotally, you will hear again, and again and again, evidence of and stories of increases of anxiety in the population generally. In the staff, as well, because there’s this kind of vicarious trauma angle to this that sees people in those fields and others being exposed to the anxiety of others, which heightens their anxiety as a result, which leaves us with this kind of an ungodly and wholly toxic cocktail of spiralling anxiety, it would appear, and the need perhaps, to arrest that at some level. I don’t mean to do away with anxiety, I mean, to have options for how one should be with it, or could be with it that are otherwise not thought through and not necessarily easily available to us. 

Anxiety in the mind and body

Epinephrine (Adrenaline) molecule

So just before we proceed into that, a little sidebar note on the way in which anxiety, very, very simply put, affects us at the level of our kind of neurobiology, let’s say. So when we are in the presence of something that causes us anxiety, we can have two major responses at that level, one of which is the typical kind of adrenaline response which feeds the immediacy of the fight or flight kind of process, the limbic system. In brain sort of terms, simply put, that one tends not to be too problematic, by which I mean, its effects break down quite quickly in the bloodstream and in the body. And they become eliminated from that system, from our somatic and embodied form quite quickly. So in a sense, they arise very quickly, and they pass quite rapidly, which, I guess if we reflect on her own experience, we’ve all noticed we’ve all had that experience – something shocks us like a near miss when we’re driving in the car, or you open an email and you think you’ve been scammed out of all your money, and then within seconds, you realise you haven’t – it’s actually an alert from the bank warning you of a scam. You might feel this kind of instant surge of adrenaline, and then this kind of rapid decrease, but the kind of spike as it would appear on a graph. And then the rapid downside of that, and most studies show that the adrenaline component gets eliminated from our system, gets metabolised and expelled excreted very rapidly. So within an hour or two of it happening, it’s no longer detectable in our bloodstream. 

Cortisol molecule

So that one gives us less problems, the one that seems to cause us more problems is slower acting, slower to arrive and lingers an awful lot longer. And that would be very much to do with the cortisol function. So this release again into the bloodstream of all the family of cortisol related biochemical responses the body has, functions like steroids in the world, really. So in very simple terms, if adrenaline is designed to give us a sudden release of very explosive energy that helps us react in fight or flight type ways to run away from the threat, or to attack it and overpower it, and then get away from it, then the cortisol type response comes after that. So let’s imagine an evolutionary scenario where the bear or the tiger has appeared suddenly, and we’re on the menu. The adrenaline release allows us to respond in an instant to jump away, to leap out of the cave, to start running, whatever it is we’re going to do but the bear comes after us or the tiger  gives chase. So what then? Well, the “what then?” is that our evolutionary body is designed in such a way that it releases that cortisol blood into the body, which is basically about stamina. So it’s no longer about explosive speed and getting out of there, or having the power and the strength to lift the car off the injured child, which our adrenaline often allows us to do, it’s a sort of temporary superhuman capacity. Cortisol is stamina. So it means we can keep going, we can keep running or keep punching or keep doing the activity we need to do in order to survive. Hence, it lingers a lot longer. And hence, you could say in evolutionary terms, here we are. Our ancestors did a good enough job of avoiding and out running and keeping going from those predatory creatures and other threats that they survived to spread their genes of which we’re the beneficiaries. 

So in evolutionary terms, a great thing in current life terms is a really problematic thing because it’s triggered quite frequently in regular life. But it doesn’t necessarily metabolise and break down before the next triggering event. So we end up in this escalating baseline where our background cortisol level, detectable level in the blood, is elevated and then elevated again, and then incrementally elevated again. So we become increasingly subjected to those stresses. It’s very bad for one’s immune system, for one’s blood pressure, for all kinds of other parts of our autonomic nervous system and so forth. And it’s often only detectable once it reaches critical levels where we kind of get diagnosed as having high blood pressure, something of that nature. But it definitely functions in relationship with anxiety, which is our theme here and now. 

How to regulate anxiety in the body

So at a very simple level, two things: One, being able to map this to recognise it as it’s happening or as it’s about to happen or during its event is enormously helpful, because it helps us accurately orientate, helps us be more likely to remember to breathe, helps us to have choices that we otherwise wouldn’t have.

And another even more basic and simple aspect that is well worth noting, is hydration. So being well hydrated is an enormous advantage. It helps the body in this process of metabolising and eliminating all of these processes that we’re speaking about here. Also, the symptoms of dehydration map perfectly onto anxiety. So that’s worth noting, too. Sometimes our anxiety, under certain conditions might actually be dehydration stress on the body, and simply having drank more water, more fluids, would have been helpful. So let’s at least do that. Let’s take that basic step, and remain well irrigated as human beings on that level. 

Addressing the dread and fear of anxiety

So this is already getting quite long. And at the risk of making it longer, I just want to take a few more areas of interest and inquiry, particularly moving into more reflective and spiritual dimensions here. So there’s a basic point here about allowing anxiety to be itself. So our natural instinct, when we experience it even at a small level, is to want it gone, is to want it to go away and leave us alone and not be there. And of course, what that tends to do is to set up resistance, which implies a kind of division in our psyche, or a division between the body and the rest of our consciousness, for example, as one could say happens during a panic attack. Our mind dejects, but the body is abandoned and left to have this existential experience of overwhelming dread and fear. And, as I say, mistaking itself for being in the process of dying. 

Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

So what do I mean by allowing it to exist? It’s a kind of bigger decision to allow ourselves to feel our feelings, to experience our experiences fully, with all their texture and colour and vividness and spaciousness, importantly. So remember, in the definition of the word anxiety was this idea of contraction and constriction. So if we can move the opposite way, give space and spaciousness around that experience, sometimes this sets up a pattern where the thing is self-releasing. Once acknowledged and allowed and not resisted or repressed, the escalation cycle of anxiety actually plateaus and even begins to decline. So it’s something really counterintuitive. Can we practise being witness to our own anxiety and allowing it to exist not as an enemy, not as a foe, but as another phenomena, another experience within our array of experiences? Allow it to become self-illuminating, and therefore revealing something about why it’s happening, what its nature is, how it’s revealing to us some point at which we are not in alignment with our true nature. 

It’s a clue in other words, that we are somehow and maybe quite subtly disconnected. So it’s signalling to us that we don’t recognise the manifestation in our own consciousness of perhaps fear or anxiety as we’re speaking about it here. It could, of course, connect with a story or a storyline and narrative that we already have in there. And if true, this would happen very, very quickly, within moments of the anxiety response being triggered. So it could confront us with a sense that we’re somehow inadequate, that somehow because we’re inadequate, we must get rid of this unpleasant experience, because we won’t be able to hold it or navigate our way through it. So my survival, we might think from that position, depends on, by pushing this away. It’s a deep identification with an inadequate aspect of our being potentially – “I won’t be big enough. I won’t be strong enough. I won’t be up to it. I won’t have the chops to handle myself under these conditions, and therefore, I must repress this and must resist it”. And that, of course, causes “it” over time to escalate. 

Unblocking our Will to address anxiety

There’s something really important here as well, and again, in Psychosynthesis terms that relates to the Will. So, anxiety to the extent we are experiencing anxiety or we’re chronically afflicted by anxiousness, we will be blocked in our relationship to our own will. And if we are blocked in relationship to our own will, then our will is not available to us to be used in addressing this root cause, this anxiety. So we’re in a kind of double bind. The moment that we actually begin to access our will, we might experience fear and anxiety too. So there’s another level there. This gets talked about in different ways in different traditions, but in a more analytic tradition, almost a kind of Freudian aspect of it, one would be said to be experiencing a kind of castration complex, either of oneself or we may be projecting it into the world around us or onto others.

In other words, if we’re unconscious of our own fear, then the anxiety will will out. And we will come to believe that we are someone who basically has very little or even no will, that we cannot act according to our will, and that basically, as a result, we are someone that cannot do difficult things. Things that are asked of us or required of us will feel too much. So it’s a very disabling position to be in. Anxiety as well can be part of a narcissistic constellation within our psyche, too. So this can be, in a technical sense, experienced as the breakdown of the mirror transference. So that’s a subject all unto itself, but just to keep it simple, the part of us that is kept alive only through mirroring, if it feels itself to be threatened through the breakdown of that mirroring, then there isn’t enough strength in the rest of the structure, let’s say the self representation structure, to hold up the Self. So we will come to fear being nothing. We will come to fear non-being – a sort of annihilation, an existential dread. And if we look deeply, we might come to realise that the fear takes the story form of “I’m not important, I’m insignificant. I count for nothing,” or that we experience it as “I’m not real. I’m a sort of empty shell”. Or I suppose the other alternative to that, that would have the strength for such an affect would be, “I am made of shame, I am a primal expression of shame, I am nothing but shame”. 

So those components too, come to be functions underneath the veneer or the top level register of anxiety, these deep dreads. And of course, I’m also talking here collectively – are we, in our so-called climate anxiety, actually beset with a collective level of shame? Or are we actually beset with a collective level of annihilation? Or is it actually even more primary than that? Are we experiencing the dread of non being? The “I’m not actually here at all”. Interesting things to ponder the relationship between the collective and the individual that that which lives in the zeitgeist for the spirit of the times, as Jung would have called it, and that which is part of our own karmic, systemic, ancestral inheritance that belongs to this one, and is the responsibility of this one to do something with or something about. 

Tapping into your courageous heart

One other thought before we begin to close this up.  It’s also possible and also technically the case that anxiety of all kinds distilled down into the essence of fear, are actually a reaction to the perceived absence of love. So let me say that again, the fear of which anxiety is a petal, is itself a reaction to the perceived absence of love. So without love, there isn’t any… You know, there isn’t any anything. There isn’t any jealousy, there isn’t any fear, there isn’t any anger, there isn’t any reactivity. So the fact that those things are there shows us that the primary form, love, has a distortion in our relationship to it. And that distortion is usually experienced as a block or a non perceiving, or in probably simpler terms, an absence. So we’re living as if it were the case that there is no love in our life, or in the universe, or in the Creator, or in all things. We’re living in the absence of love, even whilst that technically is an impossibility. So important to note, from the point of view of the self, there is nothing other than love. Love is everything, love is all you need, we might say, but in the profound sense. But we live as if that isn’t true, and to the extent we do that, we experience these negative feelings, emotions, affects, and in particular, your anxieties. 

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

So what do we do about that? What to do, if we come to an awareness of ourselves on the threshold of the absence of love? Well, I guess one thing we could do is include ourselves in this enormous act of acceptance, forgiveness and kindness. Or, as one would say, in the Buddhist world, Metta – loving kindness. We would begin practices that have at their core, a sense of compassion and a redirection to the heart. So this would bring us to the work or the part of the work that, for example, A. H. Almaas, in particular in his book, The Point of Existence, identifies and names as the courageous heart. So this means there’s a job to do, there’s a labour to undertake at which we actively and with harness to the will, begin to generate and sustain and grow an attitude of the courageous heart – the heart that is becoming alive to the reality of true relationship with the self and therefore with all the 10,000 things, you might say. 

But we’re actually not at that stage yet. We’re recognising – Yes, I have a heart, and it’s deeply wounded and heartbroken, but there is this possibility, there is this work that I can begin to do through these practices, through these operations, through this will, that brings me evermore into relationship with the manifestation of my own courageous heart. 

Closing words from W.H. Auden

So let’s bring this to a close, it’s already much longer than I had intended. It’s obviously a huge subject and a huge aspect of being alive right now. There are many other levels we could speak about, many other layers of this that are equally deserving of attention and reflection. And perhaps in time, we’ll come to those as well. But for now, I’d like to end where we began with poetry, with The Age of Anxiety, with W.H. Auden, and I’m going to end by reading you two small sections from that poem, to the more famous one. So one is literally the end of the poem, which in a sense brings us to where we just were, at the end of my extemporising about anxiety. Auden says this by way of closing his long 60-70 pages of this poem, and he ends it like this. So he’s talking about the character, Malin, the main protagonist of the poem, who ends in this way; 

WH Auden Circa 1946 (Photo: Jerry Cooke, The Life Picture Collection)

“So thinking, he returned to duty, reclaimed by the actual world where time is real and in which, therefore, poetry can take no interest. 

Facing another long day of servitude to willful authority and blind accident, creation lay in pain and earnest, once more reprieved from self destruction, its adoption, as usual, postponed”. 

— The closing couple of lines of the poem The Age of Anxiety, by WH Auden dated July 1944-November 1946

So I think that contains a lot of the themes we’ve just been speaking about. But Auden, being the kind of poetic visionary that he was, distils this even clearer for us. So here is the real essence of the thing in a couple of lines, and I think this perhaps stands for everything we’ve just been exploring together. And this is a quote from within the text of the poem, and this is how it is, and we’ll end with this:

​​“We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”

— W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety, Part Six, The Epilogue

So with that note, thank you for your attention and for your interest. What do you think about anxiety? What haven’t we covered or thought about? Do let me know, do get in touch, do keep checking out the monthly blogs and the newsletters that come through my website. And also, the different announcements that get made about forthcoming workshops, courses, ongoing programmes and indeed study, therapeutic work, supervision, mindfulness and so forth. Thank you for your attention and your care. And I will see you again soon. Bye bye.

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