From Stressed to Zest: Making Something out of Dread
A client who was stuck in a sinkhole of fear, panic, and lethargy looked at me in dismay as he said he wished he could experience more zest in life. I replied that I too wished the same for him and thought if only he could convert the enormous energy powering his worry into zest he would be living more fully if not passionately.
How does one change stress to zest, convert fear into action, make something out of the dreadful feelings that drive intense anxiety? Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) believes that irrational thoughts sustain maladaptive feelings. To change one’s feelings one needs to change one’s thoughts. Understanding the irrational assumptions underlying one’s thoughts will lead to a more realistic assessment of the situation and a reduction in one’s anxiety.
While not a CBT therapist, I see the value and helpfulness in this perspective. However, it doesn’t address an essential paradoxical character of anxiety: intense anxiety overrides cognition. Anxiety can become unbearable. One can’t think clearly to consider the irrationality of one’s thoughts. And even when one understands that their thoughts are irrational, this fragile realization collapses from the force of anxiety.
How does one change one’s point of view when one’s point of view is a torrent of anxiety? There is something intrinsically destabilizing about anxiety that simultaneously undermines the cohesion of self. I am reminded of a Chinese proverb that says, go to the heart of danger, and there you will find courage. The cognitive understanding that can modulate anxiety comes from the courage to experience the feeling at the heart of anxiety. Without feeling the presence of your fears, affirmations and reframes are like road signs in the path of a tornado.
Often buried within the swirl of anxiety and not easily accessed by reason is a fundamental self-defining fear. Anxiety not only disturbs but it also conceals and confuses contributing to self-deception. This core belief is background to a foreground of anxiety that hides and prevents the “unthought known” reality of the core belief from being recognized.
I was working with a graduate student who came to see me in a state of panic that he would not complete his thesis. Anxiety interfered with his ability to think clearly and focus on his work. As he approached the deadline, his anxiety became increasingly paralyzing. It felt like his life was falling apart and he was helpless to do anything about it.
We met frequently. Through these intense discussions, we were able to sort through the rubble of anxiety to discover how vulnerable he was to the opinions of others, particularly individuals he idealized. He described how his work had been going well until he met with his thesis committee. One professor dismissed his work as superficial. My client said that he wasn’t initially bothered by the meeting, but over the next couple of days began to doubt his ideas, the credibility of his work, and ultimately the value of himself, at which point he was swallowed up by anxiety. He acknowledged that his fear of failure was profound. With this recognition, he had established a foothold that allowed him to work with his anxiety and his fear of failure as he re-established a relationship to his thinking, capable self. The anxiety that had been intense, vague, pervasive, and destabilizing had become tangible, understandable, and workable. Now there was work to do.
The vulnerability to self-experience is pivotal to change and to mastering anxiety. Avoiding feelings produces anxiety. Confronting fears produces anxiety. Caught between a rock and a hard place, I am reminded of the visual cliff, an experimental paradigm used years ago to study infant perception. The visual cliff is a glass surface divided in half, one part clear giving the illusion of depth and the other part having a checkered board pattern that looks like a floor that is safe to walk on. Taking that first step towards the danger of confronting one’s fear can feel like walking into the abyss, yet it might be like walking onto a visual cliff. Fear is an experience waiting to be realized. Surviving the experience and discovering the reality of oneself grounds one and builds confidence. What was once terrifying becomes a challenge.
“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if we could only arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.”
Rainer Marie Rilke “The Dragon-Princess”