What could be causing this? There are all sorts of theories but no generally accepted consensus. Therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) are designed to manage the symptoms, but they don’t deal with the cause or bring about a cure. Research focuses mostly on brain chemistry, the assumption being that the cause lies in an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain. But that begs the question, how did this imbalance come about?
If we want to understand anxiety more fully, and find a way to overcome it, we need to examine it from a broader perspective. To start with, let’s state the obvious. Anxiety, or fear, is a natural response to something we perceive as life threatening. We come across a snake or a bear in the forest, or we see a truck driving towards us as we cross the road, and we feel fear. In these cases, anxiety is a natural response to alert us to danger. It serves a helpful, life-preserving role. It generates adrenalin, which gives us extra energy to avoid the danger.
So what about when we are sitting comfortably at home with no external threat yet we still feel anxious?
That’s the situation many people nowadays find themselves in. There may be no financial stress, they may be in a relationship, have a job etc – all the external requirements for a happy, safe life may be there – and yet they still suffer from crippling anxiety. How are we to explain this?
When we step into the path of a truck and we feel anxious, we know why. We don’t think something has gone wrong with us. Yet nowadays, when people suffer from anxiety, they are at a loss to explain it. There’s no obvious cause to point at. They are just anxious – either for no reason, or for an irrational reason such as agoraphobia or some other phobia.
The current prevailing wisdom for this condition is that it is a mental illness, which is simply putting a label on something we can’t otherwise explain.
It’s a pseudo explanation. It implies that something has gone wrong with that person’s mind. Either their brain chemistry is imbalanced and they need to be medicated, or their thinking is out of whack and they need CBT or a similar therapy. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t address the cause, or bring about any sort of lasting cure. At most, people will have some relief from their symptoms, or they learn to manage their anxiety without being overwhelmed by it. But there is no suggestion that the condition can be cured in the long term.
What is missing from this picture is a larger perspective. We need to question our assumptions about anxiety and take a fresh look at it from a holistic point of view.
Is it possible that almost a quarter of the population has become ‘mentally ill’ for no reason?
Do these things just happen because, well, life’s like that? Is science too blinkered to see the whole picture? Is it just about chemicals in the brain, or is there something else going on – something we have so far failed to recognise?
From a holistic point of view, every condition has a cause.
Our natural state is to experience wellbeing and any deviation from that points to an imbalance, or to something missing on the physical, mental or emotional level.
A symptom such as anxiety is a distress signal from the body/mind/spirit telling you that something is out of balance. It is not a mental illness but an intelligent signal from within yourself, pointing to an underlying cause.
It is not always helpful to just medicate it, or try to shut it down. That’s like shooting the messenger. A far more intelligent response is to accept it, listen to it and try to understand what it is telling you about yourself.
So it would be helpful to start an enquiry as to what is going on with the current levels of anxiety in our culture. What does this tell us about ourselves? The fact that this is happening to almost a quarter of the population gives us our first clue.
This is not an individual phenomenon. It is a cultural problem, one that is most prevalent in today’s Western society.
(Statistics show that people in First World countries are three times more likely to be affected by anxiety than those in developing countries)
We have two major imbalances in our culture, which, because we are so caught up in them, often go unrecognised.
One is an over emphasis on masculine qualities and the overlooking of feminine qualities. And the other is an over emphasis on mental activity and the ignoring of our connection to the body and the heart. Both of these are related, but they play out in different ways. (It is interesting to note here that in countries where these imbalances do not occur such as Thailand – where I have been fortunate enough to spend some time recently – anxiety disorders are also far less prevalent)
It is primarily through our connection to the body and the heart that we get to know ourselves.
The body tells us when we are tired and need to rest, when we need to exercise, which foods promote wellbeing and which ones undermine it, and so on. Our feelings of joy and wellbeing occur in the body. These are what guide us in making the right choices in life, in terms of job, partner, lifestyle etc.
When we lose our felt connection to the body, we will be mentally all at sea. We won’t know what to choose, or how to shape our values. Instead of following our felt needs, we start to follow mental whims, fads, egoic desires, others’ expectations, addictive tendencies and so on. Eventually, we end up not knowing who we are, what we feel, or what our real needs in life are.
Is it any wonder that a person in that situation would feel anxious? Anxiety is not a mental illness. It is a signal from their body/mind/spirit saying ‘Hey, you are going off track. You’re losing touch with yourself. This is not good for you. It is dangerous to your health and wellbeing.’These imbalances operate in the subconscious.
You may be sitting comfortably at home, with no obvious external threat, and still be receiving these signals from your subconscious mind. It doesn’t mean that you have a mental illness. But it does mean that you are most likely carrying some of our Western cultural baggage and losing contact with your real feelings. And that you are perhaps one of the more sensitive members of society, who will be more affected by this situation.
The good news is, once you have identified what is going on in holistic terms that in itself points to ways in which you can free yourself from anxiety. It is possible to correct the imbalances that we carry.
Dealing With Anxiety
Anxiety is generally experienced in one of two ways, acute and chronic. When it is acute, it tends to be overwhelming. The person finds it difficult to maintain control and even to function in a normal way. Here the main emphasis needs to be on establishing control and managing the symptoms. Medication can be helpful during this acute stage, as well as CBT or ACT and similar therapies. It is possible that other fears may enter the picture, such as the fear of losing control of the mind, or the fear of fear itself. So the emphasis is on learning to accept the situation and regain control.
Once the strong feelings of the acute stage have settled down, the experience of anxiety enters a chronic stage. Here it continues in a less severe way, and the person is able to function more or less normally, without feeling the threat of being overwhelmed. The feeling has moved from the foreground to the background. It is still there, but manageable.
It is during this stage that a holistic approach to dealing with anxiety becomes possible. The person is able to reflect on some of the possible underlying causes of the condition. They can observe to what extent they are, or are not, connected to the body, and the feelings and sensations in the body. And to what extent they can or cannot experience the emotions of the heart.
Gradually, over time, this disconnect can be addressed and worked through. Therapies such as yoga, Tai Chi, body centred psychotherapy, movement therapy, and any approach that allows you to connect with the felt experience of the body will be helpful. Over time, it becomes possible to change a person’s experience of themselves from one of anxiety and contraction, to one that includes the full range of emotions and is grounded in a sense of wellbeing.
But before that can happen, we need to have an open dialogue in our culture about how we got here.
We need to take the blinkers off the medical/scientific model, and view the spread of anxiety from a holistic point of view.
If up to a quarter of the population were to be affected by any other illness, there would be huge uproar.
The fact that we remain relatively complacent about the anxiety epidemic is indicative of a lack of clarity about how to deal with this alarming public health problem.
Frank Vilaasa is a counsellor, healer and meditation teacher living in Fremantle WA. He is the author of What is Love? – the spiritual purpose of relationships and can be contacted at www.awaken-love.com