Given that we enjoy longer and healthier lives, why are so many of us suffering from anxiety? We do live in an increasingly competitive society. We are bombarded with images of 'success'. Are we thin enough, handsome enough, rich enough, and clever enough? We readily use words like 'success' and 'failure', yet what do these terms really mean?
In my work as a therapist I have come to understand that, often, underlying our deepest anxieties are hidden fears to do with living and dying We are the only species that has a conscious awareness of death. We all 'know' we will die one day, so it would be surprising if we were not deeply affected by the fact that life is finite and uncertain. However, most of us don't spend hours worrying about death but we can spend a great deal of time worrying about everything else. It doesn't occur to us that these ordinary concerns might be a symbolic reflection of our anxiety about mortality.
In the 21st century the most dangerous thing most of us do is drive a car but in evolutionary terms we are not so far away from a time when daily life was perilous and predators were plentiful. We still are equipped with the visceral response of 'fight, flight or freeze' when faced with danger. Survival depended, and still depends on, being able to accurately assess danger and take appropriate action. Appropriate anxiety in the face of danger can be life saving but how do we know what is 'appropriate'. Fight, flight, freeze reactions are instinctive; they aren't the result of conscious thought. It is far harder to accurately assess danger from a cognitive perspective and so we worry about our decisions and actions.
One crucial thing that humans did learn was that if they lived together, they were safer. Some could watch whilst others slept. If you were isolated from the group you were more vulnerable to attack. The formation of groups was essential to human survival and the importance of community for our wellbeing, physical and psychological, is still true. It is interesting how much of our daily language reflects a fear, or even terror, of exclusion.
Some years ago it was fashionable to talk of the 'in-crowd'. Now being 'cool' is very important if you are young. Being 'cool' or 'in' implies you belong and you are wanted. Believing you are a wanted part of a group makes you feel safer and this is as true today as it was thousands of years ago. Current statistics show that isolation and loneliness affects mental health and decreases your life expectancy.
So how might this anxiety reflect itself in the therapist's consulting room? Younger clients rarely come in saying they are worried about death but they often come in worried about something that at first sight seems completely unrelated.
Chloe was a young woman who found choices impossible to make following the birth of her twins. As a child she was given a lot of responsibility for looking after her epileptic brother. Once, when she happened to be at home, he had a severe fit and her prompt action probably saved his life. For several months after his fit she couldn't stop worrying about what would have happened if she hadn't been at home. She had made the 'right' choice that time, but what if she had been out?
Once her children were born this anxiety became re-activated. Choices were a nightmare. She would stand frozen looking at the endless boxes of cereal on the shelves at the supermarket. Which one should she buy? When it came to choosing clothes, she found it equally difficult. It became apparent that for Chloe there were only right and wrong choices. She found it hard to believe that choices could be labeled ' different' rather than 'good' or 'bad', 'right' or wrong'. 'Different' was too uncertain since she was searching for the 'right' choice that would keep her and her family safe.
Chloe's story is rather extreme but many people believe in the 'right' choice that will lead to success and the 'wrong' choice that will lead to failure and disaster. Chloe isn't alone in the black and white thinking of 'right' and 'wrong'. Our work was helping her see that her search for safety wasn't keeping her safe. Failures and mistakes are inevitable and you learn from them. If you never fail or make mistakes, you don't learn. No amount of knowledge or wisdom will make us immortal but it will surely help improve the life journey and make it more interesting.