SUNY-GENESEO:  ENCOUNTERING ANXIETY IN ITS MANIFESTATIONS & FUNCTIONS

 

The topic we are to explore in this conference is an experience familiar to each of us here: ‘anxiety’. Perhaps the most useful way for us to approach this subject is for me to introduce it, point out some of the issues it raises, and then discuss some of your questions concerning anxiety or any of the topics closely associated with it, such as self-knowledge, the meaning and purpose of life, and the different ways anxiety influences us.    

 

Why is it considered worth our time and energy to focus on this subject, unpleasant as anxiety often proves to be? For one thing, our interest is practical. We search for some adequate way of coming to terms with our own anxieties. Any light we can receive on dealing with anxiety is a contribution to a happier, more fruitful life. We also realize that the people who mean most to us, and the society we live in have their own anxieties. If we might gain some insight concerning the condition we call anxiety, we will understand better the persons we associate with and, to some degree our times as well. For, W. H. Auden, the most influential of our American poets, just after WWII, in 1946 published a work the title of which characterized the period as “The Age of Anxiety”. He already heard the undertones of a frustrating culture that would burst forth more than a decade later in the late 60s. The bathos of the opening lines convey something of the anxiety and futility associated with the boredom arising from the absence of a worthy purpose: “When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business.” The anxiety of modern life was perceived not only by an intuitive poet, but also by the most widely read philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger in Germany and Jean Paul Sartre in France. Each gave prominence to this topic in their elaborate analyses of the human condition. We are the inheritors of that age, and in large part, as I see our society today, we are suffering unconsciously from the results of its anxieties and acting out in overt behavior certain of its self-harming tendencies.

 

Anxiety is an experience that affects every human person in various degrees of intensity at each period of life. If we study anxiety in its cultural manifestations we discover that it assumes various forms at different periods as well as in the various types of culture. Its influence is often masked and remains largely unconscious in its diverse expressions. In our present time, it has become a more prominent, and often more harmful influence among youth than it had been in an earlier age.  A recent survey shows that some 7% of youth require medical treatment for anxiety, while, no doubt, there are many more suffering from disturbing but less incapacitating anxiety symptoms. This well attested fact has many and complex causes, social, psychological, and spiritual. Some of the more important factors contributing to the high incidence of this affliction are widely recognized in our American society.  I list a few of the more obvious factors: 40% of births in the year 2008 were to single mothers; depression, violence, and even suicide among youth have been numerous and are increasing, alcoholism and drug use are common and notably frequent in Universities, pornography has become a widespread addiction, and the faithful practice of religion decreasingly influential in the public square, and rejected by a large segment of the university population.

 

The condition that we identify in our English language as ‘anxiety’ consists in a restless state of mind, often with a degree of confusion and self-doubt, whether conscious or unconscious, that regularly is accompanied by somatic reactions proportionate to the intensity of the experience. Like a number of other terms expressive of common psychological and mental states, the term, ‘anxiety’, refers to a range of psychic and somatic experiences that escape comprehensive, clearly established boundaries. As a result, anxiety is variously defined by those who have studied it most seriously. In psychiatry, anxiety is viewed as a state arising from perception of pain or threat of danger to the self. This anxiety commonly leads to repression of the idea or image associated with the pain. Different causes are characteristically viewed as sources of such apprehension; forbidden sexual thoughts or impulses are stressed by Freud, whereas Adler emphasized feelings of inferiority, to mention but two examples. Philosophers and theologians penetrate more deeply into the human condition and view anxiety as a feature of existence itself. Paul Tillich, for instance, has this definition: “Anxiety is the self-awareness of the finite self as finite.” His view then is ontological, that is to say, he considers anxiety at the level of being, and holds that it is not derived from anything; it is given with existence and so is always present, though often latent. To be human is to be limited, threatened by nothingness, subject to death. “Psychotherapy cannot remove ontological anxiety,” Tillich wrote, “because it cannot change the structure of finitude. But it can remove compulsive forms of anxiety and can reduce the frequency and intensity of fears. It can put anxiety ‘in its proper place.’” (cited in “The Concept of Anxiety”, xvi ,cf. n. 40.) Only a spiritual approach can heal this deep cause of human anxiety. God alone is the measure of the human person.  

 

In the year 1842 already, Soren Kirkegaard drew attention to this subject by his work “The Concept of Anxiety”.  His focusing on the topic initiated the modern concern better to understand, describe, and treat the conditions arising from anxiety. In a work published in the year 1895 an expressly clinical approach to understanding the manifestations and causes of anxiety was inaugurated by Sigmund Freud. As Freud followed up an insight by his colleague, Joseph Breuer, a gifted physician, he discovered that anxiety is the immediate cause of certain bodily disorders and disturbances of behavior, notably hysteria. As he explored the psyche further, he elaborated a theory of human development that has had enormous influence on Western culture not only in medicine, but as well in morals, politics, law, and literature. In the mid 20th century analysis of anxiety occupied some of the most influential philosophers, notably Heidegger in Germany, Sartre in France, as well as Paul Tillich in our country. Heidegger, for instance, recognized the large role angst (anxiety) plays in human existence as such. It is anxiety, he avers, that gives rise to the effort to understand the nature of existence and of being itself. Alienation from one’s true self, according to the French existentialist philosopher, Sartre, characterizes modern men and women with results that he gave expression to in his popular plays as well as in his philosophical works..    

 

Anxiety is not entirely a negative condition. There are forms and degrees of anxiety that are important for adequate and wholesome human functioning. This role of anxiety is brought to clearer light if we consider how the term is employed in various contexts. This word refers to a widely differing range of experience, depending on the context in which it is employed. We regularly make such statements as “I am anxious to see whether Niagra Falls deserves its reputation.”  The anxiety referred to here is equivalent to such attitudes as are equally expressed by the words ‘desire’, ‘anticipate’, ‘interested in’ ‘look forward to’. It can be a synonym for ‘eager’ as in the sentence: “Anxious to make a sale, the owner lowered the price of his property.” When a physician in a hospital emergency room says “this disturbed patient suffers from acute anxiety” the term ‘anxiety’ refers to a state of intense fear or dread, often lacking an unambiguous cause or specific threat. Like French and German, our English language often employs the word as equivalent to ‘care’. It happens frequently that care modulates into anxiety in certain circumstances. I encountered a man whose caring mother upon discovering her child suffered from attacks of asthma became so anxious about his health that he developed an excessively reserved character. An impressive indication of the different conditions covered by this word ‘anxiety’ appears in the various translations of the text of the Bible. The same word in Greek, merimna, is translated by ‘care’ in some versions, but in others by the word ‘anxiety’. The legitimacy of both translations points up the fact that anxiety is not always debilitating in its effects, but becomes harmful when excessive. Anxiety, when mild and appropriately directed, has the very positive function of enhancing our activities; it serves to focus attention, stimulates motivation, and contributes to the effective application of energy in proportion to the value we experience in a given relation with a person or a duty to perform. This positive role of anxiety in our life is the first consideration to advert to in reflecting on our topic. A measure of anxiety is a characteristic of healthy engagement in human life. This measure varies with the specific situations, relations, and values of life as it unfolds and challenges each individual in different degrees and ways. Absence of all anxiety in certain situations is a more serious defect than excessive anxiety. [In a Naval Hospital during WWII, for instance, I dealt with a marine who felt no anxiety at killing in cold blood a Japanese he had taken prisoner when he was told by his officer” you captured him, so you feed him.” He interpreted this- no doubt, correctly- to mean he should kill his prisoner. He did so with no feelings of anxiety arising from a sense of guilt. In the long term his lack of anxiety is a worse state than that of an out-patient I treated in the Veterans hospital in Washington, DC some years after the war. Due to an acute anxiety attack that came upon him when driving his taxi on a bridge over the Potomac, he experienced a strong urge to kill himself by leaping into the river. The anxiety suddenly developed when he looked at the river and saw it full of floating pieces of snow-covered ice. In panic he sped directly across the city to the hospital and came rushing to my office. After listening to his account of this strong anxiety attack, I asked him to relive the experience in imagination and tell me whatever came into his mind as he did so. After some moments of reflection, he told me how he had been wounded in a battle in the Italian Alps by German shellfire while his companion was killed. Although the shelling continued, after some time he was found by corpsmen and carried down the steep mountain on a stretcher. More than once the bearers fell along the treacherous, steep descent, and on one of these occasions he rolled downward in the snow till stopped at the edge of a precipice by a boulder. After finally being deposited in a tent at the base of the mountain, he continued to be exposed to the exploding shells for some hours. Having relived and recounted in vivid detail this traumatic experience in the presence of someone he trusted, he grew increasingly free of anxiety. The same afternoon he was able to leave my office and return to work driving a taxi. This panic attack well illustrates the opposite extreme of anxiety.]

 

On the level of physiology, anxiety results in the production of hormones that ready the body for activity by stimulating the nervous system, thus making ready the brain for alert and focused intervention. Such effects of anxiety take place through the emotions that are inherent in anxiety. For anxiety itself in not a primary affect or emotion; rather, it is a complex, multileveled state of the body, psyche, and mind that includes more basic components. Both fear and love are constituents of anxiety in all its manifestations. Rightly to understand the nature of anxiety in specific circumstances, we must grasp something of the dynamisms operative in the various emotions concerned, in so far as they derive from fear and love. There is a hierarchy of the emotions, in fact, that reveals significant features of their specific character. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) analyzed the human emotions, pointing out the dynamic nature of their relations. For instance, fear derives from love. We do not fear loss of what we are not attached to by love, including life itself, and such conditions of life as health and well-being. Consider such an emotion as possessive love, which gives rise to anxiety that causes unrest that leads to unreasonable, compulsive behavior. Such self-defeating anxiety associated with passion tends to produce the rejection it fears. [For example, some years ago, the chief justice of the NY Supreme-court was so dominated by this erotic passion for a woman he was attracted to that, when she rejected his advances, he made himself such a serious nuisance as to cause her distressing anxiety. He persisted in harassing her in spite of a court order to desist.  He ceased only after being condemned to prison where he served an extended sentence.] Saint Thomas understood that a more specific knowledge of the virtues and vices and the emotions accompanying them, enables us more effectively to enhance what is helpful and to weaken and eventually to eliminate those features, such as possessiveness, that are contrary to our true good.

 

What are effective ways of dealing with anxiety? The importance of identifying the underlying causes and hidden components of anxiety became more evident and means of doing so better understood through the work of Sigmund Freud beginning in the last decade of the 19th century. In a work he published in 1895 with Dr. Joseph Breuer, Studies in Hysteria, Freud described the mechanism that explained effectively, if not entirely, the causes of the symptoms of hysteria. Of equal import in that work is the identifying of the specific treatment of the patient suffering from the debilitating symptoms. Nothing could be simpler: it consists in talking freely about the feelings and events associated with the presenting symptoms of the affliction. [Actually, it was Breuer who made the discovery that an unconscious, repressed memory is at the root of the neurotic behavior or somatic symptom.  Freud studied the nature of this memory intently and explained in concrete detail the mechanisms giving rise to the symptoms. The specific memory is one that is associated with painful conflict and resulting anxiety, too intense for the subject to confront, and so leads to repression. We saw this process at work in the case of the taxi driver veteran.

 

These observations were to prove the beginning of a profound shift in the understanding of human psychology and behavior, finding application in many domains, not only in patients suffering from hysteria. Recognition of the fact that people are influenced by unconscious images that bear upon their perception of others and of their society penetrated into various areas of Western culture, including medicine, sociology, law, teaching, advertising, and politics. Freud’s further explorations led him to offer explanations that were controversial in his insistence on sexuality as the basic cause of conflict and anxiety that resulted in crippling symptoms in many instances. He wrongly generalized from cases he treated that sexuality in the form of Oedipal conflict was at the root of character formation and a major cause of neuroses.

 

Before long other gifted investigators and experienced clinicians, accepted the fundamental insights that unconscious memories and images that were a cause of inner conflict, were responsible in many instances for a variety of neurotic behavior and symptoms. But some of the most perceptive, such as Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, disagreed with the exaggerated emphasis Freud placed on the sexual influence in development and as cause of neurosis. Often, Jung discovered, tension due to sexual urges was absent or relatively minor in persons suffering from psychic conflict. He observed that other factors, such as the lack of a sense of purpose in life, and the absence of religious dedication were regularly the cause of people’s psychic disorders with their accompanying anxiety. Other investigators, Adler at the head of the list, repudiated Freud’s sexual doctrine, finding personal relations far more significant, beginning with problems of one’s self-image. He emphasized the feeling of inferiority that, along with social feeling, explains the development of human character. Erik Erikson gave special prominence to interpersonal relations in his descriptions of personality formation and character development.]Increasingly society’s values and goals, that are mediated in the schools, have been identified as exerting large influence on the formation of character and on behavior. When these values are not suited to the welfare of the needs of individual persons they result in much of the anxiety that accompanies human development. With the changes in the attitude of society toward sex that has taken place since the diffusion of Freud’s early theories, and the marked increase in sexual acting out, hysterical neuroses have become much less common, only to be replaced by a wide variety of psychic and behavioral disorders that in many respects are causes of greater human suffering.  Infidelity, lack of abiding personal commitment, divorce, children knowing only a single parent, and addiction to pornography among other issues have admittedly become major social and personal disorders in current American society and contribute to the increase of anxiety-related suffering.

 

Society itself increasingly suffers from self-inflicted injury that is a source of human misery. The causes are multiple, to be sure. Far from curing the problem, the sexual revolution has resulted in creating larger sources of human dysfunction. Freud had shown the role of the father in the formation of human character and in resolving the anxieties of early childhood. Already in the early 1930s, the brilliant Harvard sociologist, Patrick Daniel Moynihan, predicted the disastrous consequences for society of the increasing number of fatherless families in the black population. He was widely criticized by liberals, especially by black leaders, as prejudiced. Some twenty years later when his predictions were acknowledged to have became reality, he was recognized as a prophet and given prominent positions in Federal government. Since then the problems associated with the absence of a father have spread among other population groups in our country. Last year some 40% of births in the USA were to single mothers; at the same time, the number of divorces has continued to increase, with resultant, well recognized psycho-social damage to the children involved in the break up. Among other consequences, is a society where the effects of anxiety are increasing notably in the youth, so that large numbers of the younger generation experience impairment of stable, healthy human relations, and suffer from anxiety that impairs their study and development of character. In large part, they remain unconscious of the causes of this anxiety, and in numerous instances, form habits such as drinking, use of drugs and sexual activities that heighten the problems anxiety leads to.  In certain important respects, our society, fails to provide a sense of security in which the youth can concentrate on developing strong character and the requisite skills for a sophisticated economy. All too often, current society proves a threat that is more pronounced precisely in the institutions, due to laws and rules that weaken the traditional family and the universities. Many of the universities in this country, as a recent spokesman stated, no longer function in loco parentis, assuming responsibility of forming character and morals in view of preparing the young for a wholesome life that meets their spiritual and social needs. In consequence, for the most part, higher education has become training in the skills needed for success in an increasingly technological society. The very concept of the traditional purpose of the university, of forming the whole person, socially and spiritually as well as intellectually, has been severely weakened, and even abandoned.

 

What does all this have to do with our discussion of anxiety? I submit that this state of affairs is in large measure the reason for such a striking increase of the incidence of anxiety and among the youth in our present-day society. To take one instance among others, many professors offer biased, materialist interpretations of scientific findings that reflect anti-religious and traditional values are offered to students as being justified be scientific findings. At the same time, it is treated as unacceptable to offer interpretations of the same data that support religious teachings even though a number of competent scientists consider these more logically compelling. This materialistic bias influences the attitude of many university students who are led to consider that science has answers opposed to religion belief. [An example of this result was presented in the NY Times in an article that reported on the funeral of Pope John Paul. The journalist interviewed a 20 year old American girl who had come to Rome for the Pope’s funeral. “What prompted you to come to Rome for this event?,” he asked. “I have a great admiration for Pope John Paul, he was such a great man”, she answered, then promptly added “Of course, I am not a believer for I studied science.”] Whereas, as is clearly stated by Dr. Robert Lanza, an outstanding scientist, in “Biocentrism”, a work published this year, that “Science only pretends to explain the cosmos on the fundamental level..” He adds that “modern physics can’t explain consciousness: for example the taste of a good meal, falling in love, sight of beauty.” Sill less can science comment with authority on the meaning and purpose of human life. Nonetheless, less discriminating minds regularly hold forth before students as if science not only explains the structure of the universe but can even draw conclusions as to its meaning or the lack thereof. Such views reflect a secularist mentality that, under cover of science, in practice teaches a materialist philosophy and makes of science a pseudo-religion. The laws, in recent times, are widely interpreted to forbid any interpretation of the same scientific facts that adduces religious or theological insights. In the secular environment created by these and other   developments influenced by a similar philosophy, it is hardly surprising that the incidence of drug use, of depression, extra-marital sex, and violent crime in our society, including schools and universities, have largely replaced the forms assumed by neurosis due to hidden anxieties that were prevalent in late nineteenth century Vienna.

 

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Some summary comments by way of conclusion:

 

Anxiety is a condition of our organism, operating consciously or unconsciously, that results from tension aroused by some real or imagined threat to our sense of security or self-worth. Within limits that vary with individual character and temperament, it serves an essential, helpful purpose. A healthy anxiety causes one, for example, to apply one self with greater attentiveness to study before an important exam; it makes the physician duly cautious in prescribing treatment so that he mobilizes his energy sufficiently to acquaint himself with the possible side-effects as well as the benefits of a particular medicine. Like any number of other affective states, however, anxiety becomes a hindrance to well being. From serving as a defense against harm, it can become a source of failure, and even be self-defeating. All too often we bring about what we are most anxious to avoid. There are countless instances of this mechanism in history and in daily experience. The student who is so under the influence of anxiety that he cannot concentrate on the subject; the speaker who, because of anxiety to be favorably received by the audience, forgets his speech or delivers it in a halting manner and so alienates.

 

Learning how to deal with life’s inevitable anxieties is a major aspect of human development and a condition for a healthy maturity. No easy formula proves effective for all the various causes of anxiety; however, there are some general, basic approaches recommended by wise and enlightened persons that have shown their efficacy in all kinds of circumstances. At a time of transition in his life following the crisis, full of anxieties, that led to his conversion and baptism into the Catholic Church, Saint Augustine, one of the most original and gifted thinkers in the history of Western culture, made a prayer that summed up the program he was to implement throughout the remained of his long life: “I desire to know God and the soul. Anything else? Absolutely nothing.”  (Soliloquies, 1.2 PL 32:872)  This desire arose from his prior discovery that union with God in eternal life is the purpose and goal of human existence.             

 

Practical ways of dealing with anxiety: Self-knowledge and practice examination of one’s inner life: limited time regularly entering into experience more deliberately & fully. 1. Recognizing it early on when possible to deal with it more effectively. 2. Acknowledging as deriving from my character, not some accidental happening. Forming a realistic image of self so I set the right goals, and expectations. 3 Examine the experience until you find some point at which you can with effort change your response, however insignificant it may seem. 4. Follow through by looking for opportunities to test your insight and apply it to life. 5. Examine good experiences so as to identify more fully with the strengths involved. 6. Spend time daily in prayerful encounter with the Lord so as to experience his mercy, love, concern for you.7. A major factor in anxiety is weak self-confidence; we rely on unworthy circumstances, i.e.: charm, wit, humor, intelligence, success, attractive bodily features, popularity, possessions etc. All these prove deceptive sooner or later as is stated in the ending of Prov 31:30: “charm is deceptive, beauty is vain; the wise woman is blessed; let her praise reverence for the Lord.” Pater also dealt with the best approach to anxiety: by trusting faith. “Cast your cares upon the Lord and he will care for you.” (1 Peter 5: 7) and in a Psalm: “Put your trust in the Lord and He will act.” 8 Learn to love in truth. Love is strong and firm when selfless. Tenderness may accompany true love, but of itself is readily deceptive, unstable, and limited. It can avoid hurting the loved one when true love inflicts a lesser hurt so as to avoid a later serious harm.   


Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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