It’s a familiar feeling to many: there’s nothing particularly wrong with your life; everythings going roughly OK… but you feel anxious and overwhelmed, and a little as though you are somehow hanging on for dear life.
There are many possible explanations for this. For instance, those who are familiar with philosophy may remember that Jean Paul Sartre, and other existentialists, spent time talking about the experience of basic anxiety. And a number of religions assume that humans will naturally be anxious, unless they get themselves into a right relation with God and the universe.
Although these many explanations for ‘inexplicable unease’ are interesting, and have a lot of truth to them I’m sure, I’d like to focus on a psychological explanation. It brings together a few elements of psychology, and in particular three things:
1. That we are a mixture of automatic and controlled systems
2. That anxiety (the sense there is something wrong) is part of our evolutionary heritage
3. That emotions can act as an internal alarm system, bypassing logic
AUTOMATIC AND CONTROLLED SYSTEMS
Roughly speaking, our brains are a mixture of automatic systems and controlled systems. If you want an example of an automatic system, think of your heart beating. It doesn’t require you to think about it; in fact, it prefers you to let it get on with the background job of keeping you alive.
But over and above those automatic systems, which do a great job of keeping us going as self-managing organisms, we also have some special controlled systems. I use the word controlled because they seem in part to be a matter of will.
To use the analogy of firing a gun… Imagine a woman standing shooting at a target. The gun has hidden automatic mechanisms which do a lot of the work. But the gun’s trigger is attached to her controlling mind, which decides where to point the gun, and when to fire the trigger.
In your life, you have been given a great big machine to play with. It has a huge number of internal mechanisms that work automatically. You walk, you talk, you eat, you think even, with little effort. But you have also been given a controlling mind, the ability to master some of those internal mechanisms, and to decide where to point their efforts.
YOUR EVOLUTIONARY HERITAGE
Imagine an intelligent animal that launched into every experience with no innate sense of personal danger. It would be at severe risk of running off a cliff at any moment. True, it could use its controlling mind, its intelligence, to calculate the risk of death in every circumstance, but who has time for that? And why should that intelligent mind keep itself alive anyway? It would either live a very short life before it fell off a cliff; or it would spend all its time working out what to do from first principles. And in a complex world, it might never decide what to do next. It would sit, like Hamlet, undecided.
So, without a natural sense of personal danger, an intelligent animal such as a human will not survive. We NEEDED our inborn fear of insects, of spiders, of heights, of eating the wrong thing… we needed an internal alarm system. Those without it simply died before they could reproduce. So you are the end of a long line of survivors, who did so because they had a well-developed internal danger-detecting alarm system.
So if you are prone to anxiety… then well done, because you have inherited an excellent defence mechanism from your ancestors, ALL of whom survived when others did not.
YOUR INTERNAL ALARM SYSTEM
The thing about your internal alarm system is that it is actively sensing all the time. Not only that, but it has spare capacity. This is very important for explaining natural anxiety.
Imagine for a moment that you had only just enough anxiety to protect you against danger, but no more. If you think about it, that’s an impossible thing to ask. A good alarm system naturally, and permanently, has slightly more capacity for anxiety than the danger-environment requires. That’s why it is so good at being ready – because it is always incentivised to be alert, even when things are apparently safe.
And there’s something else. You have a LEARNING alarm system. As well as its innate programming (spiders, heights etc), it has a way of learning about new stimuli, and interpreting them in terms of personal danger. So if you eat food which makes you sick, your internal alarm system will learn about that, and make you avoid that food for quite a while.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Let’s bring together these three things: the fact that you have both automatic and controlled systems; that you have inherited an evolved danger-detecting alarm system; and the fact that this alarm system has more capacity than it needs to simply keep you safe.
This hyperactive alarm system is mainly automatic, and not within your conscious control. It is on the lookout, like a soldier. It will detect and report on:
1. Anomalies – any unexplained change or movement, even on the periphery of your vision. ‘Jim is behaving strangely,’ it will say. ‘Danger of unpredictable behaviour! Beware!’ Many people find such anxiety painful, and will try to surround themselves with predictable people and routines in order to avoid anxiety. The problem is, your internal alarm system will adjust to become even more sensitive in this new safe environment. Your soldier never goes to sleep.
2. Phobias – anything that resembles one of your evolved, programmed fears will be reported on. It doesn’t have to be a spider. It could be a person or system that behaves like a spider (perhaps someone who has a way of hiding unseen, then scurrying around outside your control, like a terrorist). It could be an open space. ‘You have moved outside your front door!’ your internal soldier will say. ‘Danger of alien beings from all angles! Retreat back into known home!’
3. Pain – anything which causes you pain may be reported on. ‘Pain in stomach! Hunger alert!’ your soldier will say, remembering the times in your evolutionary past when you nearly ran out of food. ‘Eat to avoid pain!’ And soon, you may be eating too much, just to make absolutely SURE that you won’t die of starvation.
So think of your automatic alarm system as your personal soldier, standing guard for you, trying to protect you against all the myriad problems your species has suffered in its evolution. It’s very kind of that soldier to do you such a service. It really believes it is keeping you alive with its constant warnings and alerts.
WHEN EVERYTHING IS OK BUT YOU’RE STILL ANXIOUS
Let’s now go back to our original question, armed with our knowledge:
Why, when there’s nothing particularly wrong with your life, do you but you feel anxious and overwhelmed, and a little as though you are somehow hanging on for dear life?
Well, given the above, what do you expect? Your dearly beloved internal soldier, ready to fight for you at every turn, is on watch! To your personal soldier, you are just another of a long line of individuals that they have helped hang on for dear life for millions of years. The guard, part of your evolution, is part of your makeup. That weird watchfulness, that spare capacity for anxiety, is what has protected you and your fellow survivors while those who cared less fell off cliffs and died.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO LESSEN THE PAIN OF ANXIETY?
Behind the original question, I suspect, is the issue of personal happiness. A surfeit of anxiety may be self-protective, but it is not conducive to contentment. In a way, anxiety is the opposite of contentment. If you were totally content, where would be the space for a sense of personal danger?
So what can you do to master anxiety, to keep it under control, and thereby to have a chance of personal happiness?
USE YOUR CONTROLLED SYSTEMS
Earlier, we talked about automatic and controlled systems. And here, your controlled systems may come to the rescue of your personal happiness. What we need is some ways of helping our will to manage our internal alarm. Or, put another way, we need to find an authoritative general in our internal army who has the ability to manage, and give a sense of proportion to, the soldiers on guard.
You will never get rid of your internal soldier. Anyway, it would not be wise. But you can certainly appoint an internal general, with different priorities than just your survival, to supervise. Just as by learning to hold a gun you control the gun; so, by learning to manage your internal alarm, you can master your own anxiety.
AN EXERCISE: MEDITATION AS A MEANS OF MANAGING ATTENTION
I am not going to list out here all the ways in which psychologists speculate that we can get control of our anxieties. I have been more focused here on explaining WHY we often get anxious when everything seems, on the face of it, OK.
But I will recommend one method as a good one: meditation. In meditation, you are, if you like, offering your internal guard-soldier an internal general to talk to. A simple practice is to begin by sitting still, and then imagine you are a kind and compassionate general, interested in your own peace, sitting in an office, listening on the telephone to the talk of your internal guard-soldier.
Everything your internal alarm system reports, listen to. ‘Discomfort alert!’ the soldier will say. ‘If you don’t scratch your back, you may die of.. um… an unscratched back!’ Remember, you are identifying with the internal general this time. So listen on the phone, and then decide what to do. You might decide to scratch your back, or you might decide not to. But for your internal general, it is not a matter of life and death.
What you are doing, psychologically, is creating a smooth pattern of self-talk between your anxiety and your peaceful self (your alarm-soldier and your compassionate peace-general). Put another way, you are allowing a controlled system to manage an automatic system. Put another way, you are mastering your own suffering.
You may often feel anxious when everything seems OK. This is natural – you have evolved this way, and your surplus anxiety is an age-old automatic survival mechanism. If you want to avoid the suffering inherent in this excessive, self-protective anxiety, then try meditation. Identify with your more masterful self, and calmly listen to your anxious self, peacefully and compassionately. This is a controlled activity, a skill you can learn. Through practice, you may find your suffering, and that of others, reducing.