I remember when I was a teenager my mum used to say I thought too much.
This really threw me, because I didn’t understand how there could be such a thing as thinking too much.
How was it possible to think too much? It seemed to me that that was tantamount to saying I breathed too much.
Thinking just seemed to be a part of life for me. In fact, I thought that thinking a lot was a sign of intelligence.
But now I’m older, I understand what mum was saying. Now I realise there are different kinds of thinking.
To put it in very basic terms for the sake of this post, there is productive thinking, and there is unproductive thinking.
Now when I say unproductive thinking, what I’m talking about is mental rumination, or worry. It is when your thoughts go in loops and don’t lead to any outcomes.
This kind of thinking can lead to depression, anxiety, or can be a symptom of depression or anxiety.
I was in the habit of analysing everything when I was younger, to the point where it gave me brain-strain.
My overthinking used to stress me out and cause me worry. It caused me a suffering that wasn’t necessary.
It wasn’t, as I thought, a cross that I must bear, a marker of intellect, the brand of the ‘tortured artist’. I was making myself ill, without realizing it.
Why was I doing this to myself?
So why was I causing myself suffering in this way?
I should note that I’m not a mental health expert by any means, but mental health is something that interests me greatly. After all, it has impacted my own life, and indeed it impacts us all.
I’m a big fan of the 20th century psychoanalyst Carl Jung (anyone who truly knows me knows this fact about me!) Ever since I first read about him in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I felt we had a lot in common in our viewpoints on life.
So naturally, I was interested in his opinion on anxiety and overthinking.
Jung said that anxiety is a form of avoidance, and that neuroses are a way of avoiding coping with life’s challenges:
“The perpetual hesitation of the neurotic to launch out into life is readily explained by his desire to stand aside so as not to get involved in the dangerous struggle for existence. But anyone who refuses to experience life must stifle his desire to live – in other words, he must commit partial suicide.”Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation
Sounds harsh, right? And decidedly un-modern in its viewpoint. The modern treatment of the subject of anxiety is that anxiety is an illness that has to be managed.
There are many different anxiety disorders that are recognized these days. Some examples are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Body dysmorphia
- Health anxiety
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
A sufferer often has more than one of these conditions at a time. And speaking as a former sufferer myself, treating individual anxiety disorders can feel like a game of whack-a-mole; as soon as you’ve got on top of one, another comes to take its place.
Which made me think that anxiety is just an energy, which can channel itself into multiple avenues of thought and behaviour patterns.
Naturally, it tends to channel itself towards the common everyday concerns that people have, i.e. their appearance, cleanliness, health etc.
But of course, in the anxiety sufferer, these worries are more than just a passing concern, and become more pressing and troubling in nature.
More on that later.
So, as I said, anxiety these days is often treated as an illness that has to be managed, with medication, cognitive behavioral therapies, mantras, meditations, hypnosis, self-help books etc.
But who does this viewpoint serve, I wonder? Does it serve the individual with anxiety? Or does it serve the burgeoning pharmaceutical and self-help industry?
After all, isn’t it much more profitable to break anxiety down into different distinct mental illnesses, with a range of treatments, rather than just saying anxiety is an energy that is stored in the nervous system, that can express itself in many ways?
Could Carl Jung be right?
Well, let’s use myself as an example.
What was I avoiding with my obsessive worrying?
Well, quite a lot really, considering this problem really took hold in my late teens.
It is known that anxiety disorders tend to materialize in a person’s teens and early twenties.
This is because the brain is still going through a lot of changes, and the teens (especially late teens) and early twenties are usually a time of great upheaval in a person’s life.
It’s usually when you’re truly tested, for the first time. You have to make big decisions about education, work and maybe housing. Perhaps you will travel by yourself for the first time, or enter your first romantic relationship.
You’re venturing out into the adult world, and maybe it’s exciting, but it can also be scary. It’s a time of great changes, and Jung concurred that such times can trigger the onset of anxiety:
“The outbreak of the neurosis is not just a matter of chance. As a rule it is most critical. It is usually the moment when a new psychological adjustment, a new adaptation, is demanded.”Carl Jung, Freud and Psychoanalysis
Now, just to clarify, I do believe anxiety is biologically based, to some extent. I think it’s fair to say that some people are more prone to anxiety than others.
And I know for a fact that caffeine sensitivity can trigger anxiety-like symptoms, as caffeine stimulates the central nervous system. I know now, looking back, that excessive caffeine consumption was a factor in my own case.
But there can be a mental component too.
It’s not hard to see how my anxiety and worry about stupid stuff become a form of avoidance. I used to sweat the small stuff because it distracted me from facing up to the bigger issues, like making decisions about my future.
Usually the process of decision making involves balancing logic with your values, i.e. your feelings about stuff.
Which leads me on to my next point.
Worrying about something can temporarily distract you from your emotions and make you feel better in the short term, but it doesn’t solve the issues long-term.
So, one of life’s biggest challenges, for me, ironically, was learning to face up to life’s challenges, in healthy ways.
And this involves not trying to avoid or change your feelings.
You’ve got to learn to feel your feelings
Maybe this actually comes naturally for some people. But in my case, I think my neuroses were not just a way of trying to avoid challenges but also my negative and ‘bad’ feelings about stuff.
But the thing is, there’s nothing wrong with feeling scared, anxious or down from time to time. Welcome to the human experience!
But I can’t help feeling that Western consumerist society implicitly tells us that not being happy all the time is bad.
Many people try to avoid their negative feelings in all sorts of ways. For me, it was through worries and obsessions.
Addictive behaviors can also be a form of avoidance. For example, mindlessly scrolling social media or watching TV. It could be drinking to drown your feelings, taking drugs, overeating or shopping. It could be a combination of all these things.
But trying to avoid your feelings with various distractions doesn’t solve the underlying issue. And it doesn’t get rid of the feelings – they’re still there, but just suppressed.
Suppressed feelings are the worst. They can burst out at unexpected times and cause you to do crazy things.
There’s that phrase – feel the fear and do it anyway. And what is avoidance, but fear?
You don’t need to let your emotions get in the way of doing what you want to do in life.
Only by allowing feelings and letting them work through you will they leave your system. Letting them get trapped in your system is how emotional disorders evolve.
I’ve been reading At Last A Life And Beyond by Paul David, and he really drives this point home. That anxiety is just stored up stress energy in the body.
It is not a disorder that must be managed. Stress must be released, and the only way to do this is to allow yourself to feel it, and not try to change or suppress how you feel.
Anxiety is a natural feeling and not an illness, and only by suppressing it does it become an issue.
We’re often led to believe that anxiety is bad. We should not feel anxiety. But guess what? Thinking this way creates more anxiety, and it becomes a self-perpetuating loop.
The message of At Last A Life And Beyond, written by a former severe anxiety sufferer, is: anxiety is okay. It’s natural! It’s an in-built survival mechanism.
But it’s important to differentiate between situations that SHOULD make us feel anxious, and those we really don’t need to worry about.
In the latter situation, while it’s okay to feel anxiety, you shouldn’t let it change your behaviour, i.e. by using avoidance as a coping strategy. Just feel the fear and do whatever you want to do anyway.
So, the author encourages the reader to reflect on a valuable question: what do I have to be genuinely anxious about?
What do I have to be genuinely anxious about?
Ignore the rhetoric about the ‘Age of Anxiety’. There will always be stuff to worry about, no matter what period of history you live in. I’m guessing those that lived in the late Middle Ages were pretty worried about the Black Death.
Your ‘fight or flight’ mode is an in-built survival mechanism built in to protect you.
BUT, here in the developed world, we have food and shelter. We can safely assume you’re not going to be killed by a lion as soon as you step out your front door.
So, ask yourself this question:
What do I have to be genuinely anxious about?
Asking yourself this might put a lot of things into perspective for you. Of course, if you’re anything like me, there will still be some things that cause you worry, even if they’re not life or death situations.
But anxiety is a natural part of life. If you’re reading this article, I’m sure you’re the type of person who is doing their best in life. And that’s all you can do.
If you’re worried about an event coming up, these things always pass. We move on, and life continues.
And the vast majority of the time, it seems, the things we worry about never come to pass. And even if they do, we find a way to cope.
Anxiety does have a biological factor; after all, it is a natural stress response in the body. Some people and demographics may be more vulnerable to feelings of anxiety. And stimulants such as caffeine can also produce the effects of anxiety, especially when taken in large doses.
But I also think there’s something in Carl Jung’s view that anxiety is a form of avoidance. After all, anxiety often leads to avoidant behaviour patterns.
But, as we all know, facing your fears can lead to personal growth, and happiness beyond which the habitual neurotic has ever known.
So, take the writer Paul David’s advice, and ask yourself, “What do I have to be genuinely anxious about?”
And, when you find yourself worrying or obsessing about something, or indulging in addictive or compulsive behaviours, no matter what label has been attached to your anxiety (generalized, social or OCD), it may be worth asking yourself, “What am I avoiding?”
Here are some links you may find useful if you’re interested in finding out more about resources referred to in this article, anxiety and emotional management: