Anxiety is a warning of impending danger as well as a painful experience, a state of tension that motivates us to do something, to take some action. Anxiety is often too painful to cope with in rational terms and we sometimes resorts to irrational protective methods such as rationalization or other defense mechanisms. This defense mechanism alleviates the painful anxiety, but does so by distorting reality instead of by dealing directly with the problem. This creates an undesirable situation between the actual reality and our perception of it.
There are three kinds of anxiety; reality anxiety (actual fear of danger from external world, war, crime, natural disasters, etcetera, it is an appropriate response to an event being faced and it does not have to be repressed, it can be used as a motivation to change); neurotic anxiety (evoked by threats to the “balance of power” within ourselves, it is out of proportion to the situation, it is out of the awareness, and it tends to immobilize us); moral anxiety (people with a well-developed conscience tend to feel guilty when they do something contrary to their moral code). (Corey 2005).
Because we cannot survive without some anxiety it is a part of living, and being psychologically healthy entails living with as little neurotic anxiety as possible, while accepting and struggling with the unavoidable normal anxiety’s that are part of living.
According to Coleman (1980) the basic nature of neurosis is a maladaptive lifestyle typified by defense-orientated behaviour aimed at avoiding or lessening anxiety, the faulty evaluation of reality and the tendency to avoid rather than to cope with stress, and the tendency to maintain this lifestyle despite its self-defeating and maladaptive nature. Many clients who seek counseling want solutions that will enable them to eliminate anxiety.
Triggers for anxiety are also exacerbated by our culture of individualism where the self is defined primarily in terms of autonomy, individual achievement and success. Anxiety arises when there is a threat to the values or meanings an individual holds essential to his or her existence. When our cultural understandings of the self are defined primarily in terms of self-sufficiency, autonomy, independence and achievement, then what threatens this sense of self – such as feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and warm relations – will need to be repressed. It is these behaviours that we repress and that are denied value by a culture that give rise to symptoms. (May in Corey: 2005)
Individual competitive striving then becomes one of the prominent ways in which we seek a sense of security and recognition. Compulsive striving for power, prestige, possessions, mastery or success gives the self a sense of value and when a culture requires repression of vulnerability, then persons also repress a fundamental human longing, the desire to be loved just as we are, imperfect, sinful, fallible, and finite. (Dykstra in Corey: 2005)
One of the central forces and dynamics that keep people from living in harmony with God and others is anxiety. It is also, according to Freud, the etiological phenomenon behind all behaviour disturbances. Heidegger pointed out to the double connection in the word “care” in several languages, meaning both cure and anxiety (cited in Niebuhr, 1941). A variety of scholars have shown that cultural patterns and values are as critical to the creation of anxiety as child/parent patterns in early development. Neurotic anxiety is triggered by isolation, interpersonal alienation, hostility, a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, and a lack of meaning. The individualistic culture in which we live creates particular forms of anxiety that can only be adequately addressed by the development of and participation in appropriate forms of community that include communal disciplines that pull us out of isolation of community and on to communion. Everywhere there is a cry for community, and yet not all communities have the capacity to respond to the real needs of our time. (Corey 2005).
Tillich (1952) tells us that existential anxiety which is related to the finitude we all share, is triggered by the threat of fate and death, the threat of emptiness and meaningless, and the threat of guilt and condemnation. As a leading Protestant theologian of the 20th century, he believes awareness of our finite nature gives us an appreciation of ultimate concerns. According to him it takes courage to discover the true “ground of our being” and to use its power to transcend those aspects of nonbeing that would destroy us. He says we struggle to discover, to create, and to maintain the core deep within our being. One of the greatest fears of clients is that they will discover that there is no core, no self, no substance, and that they are merely reflections of everyone’s expectations of them.
Coleman, JC, Butcher, JN & Carson, RC 1980. Abnormal psychology and modern life. Glenview, Illinois: Foresman and Company
Corey, G 2005. Theory and practice of counselling and psychotherapy: Thomson Brooks/Cole
Tillich, P 1952. The courage to be. New Haven, VT: Yale University Press