Posted by: thealienist | October 7, 2014

The Anxiety Traps

When it comes to mental illness, I see several “traps” that my patients fall in. How they fall for these traps and how they are lured into these traps are easy to understand. Avoiding them is usually fairly straightforward, though it may be difficult. Let’s talk about the traps that the anxious need to avoid.

Too often, we take for granted the good things in our lives.  If we were to “count our blessings” or “take time to stop and smell the roses,” we would see that there are many things in our lives that bring us joy, make us happy, and lead to a contented life.  We would also see that there are many things that we do not experience that, if present, would rob us of our peace and comfort.  Aaron Beck called these things (both positive and negative) our “personal domain.”  These are the things that are important to us — those things that we have an interest in preserving, avoiding, or simply managing to increase the value of our lives.

The anxiety traps trick us into giving up important parts of our personal domain – our “world,” if you like — in the interest of comfort.  We may find mild anxiety to be very tolerable and not very disruptive of our lives.  As the anxiety gets more intense, however, the temptation is to leave situations that induce anxiety (escape) and ultimately to avoid encountering the situation altogether.  At first, we may think that this is a good strategy, and we are rewarded by our relative comfort.  The first intrusions of anxiety on the scope of our activities may seem only slight.  Over time, though, we find that we are avoiding more and more.  Our world is becoming smaller and smaller.  Fewer things are available to bring us joy and happiness.  We begin confusing lack of anxiety with contentedness.  Finally, if this goes on for too long, our lives are isolated and empty.  Our world is so impoverished that depression is the expected outcome.  Our thoughts and our lives revolve around avoiding things that make us anxious or bracing for the next onslaught of anxiety.  Efforts to consider resuming our previous “normal” life are overwhelming as we feel incompetent and unable to endure the anxious feelings and worries we would have to confront.  The trap has sprung, and we are caught.

How does one avoid the anxiety traps?  I often tell my patients that the best guard against anxiety is a spirit of defiance.  You may choose who you defer to in life.  You may allow your friends, your mate, or your boss to make claims on you, but you should never let anxiety run your life.  Don’t get me wrong.  Appropriate anxiety is a friend.  Appropriate fear is an ally.  They point out real or possible dangers.  They spur you into action or suggest further consideration before acting.  On the other hand, pathological anxiety seizes control of your life and insists that you escape and avoid.  It convinces you that you have no choices and have no ability to engage the situation and work it to your ends.  To this, the proper response is defiance.  I particularly like the defiance shown by Brian Blessed as the messenger of Henry V.  In this scene King Henry has accused the French king of illegitimately taking the crown from him.  He also accuses the Dauphin of sending petty insults to him.  Brian Blessed is sent to deliver the message to the King and the Dauphin.

Such should be our response to any anxiety that attempts to take control of our lives from us.  How would such defiance look?  A person who finds his choices limited by unreasonable anxiety would think something like, “How dare such an emotion or such a thought try to force me into giving up control of my life!  I am now even more determined to face this fear to show myself that I am strong enough and have the ability to endure this anxiety.  And when I am done, I will know that this emotion and this thought will not rule me — I will rule them!”  If you are a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune, you might think, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” (I generally like this quote, but I can fear if I want to.  I also do not credit fear with bringing about obliteration.  Still, if it works for you….)

If you refuse to flee unreasonable anxiety and if you refuse to give up control of your life to your fears, you will avoid the anxiety trap.  You will gain self-confidence.  You will be “the master of [your] fate and the captain of [your] soul.”

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.
Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

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