One of the most difficult features of anxiety is that it tends to be all-consuming. It squats in the middle of our minds and refuses to let anything else in or through. Though the anxiety causes us great pain, it denies any attempts to be questioned, analysed, probed or reconfigured. We are both terrified and unable to think beyond our terror. Our thoughts become low, relentless, repetitive, stymied things: returning again and again to the issue of whether the door is locked, the accounts were signed off or the social media account is not under attack. Anxiety dominates over and excludes any other form of mental activity; all that will be in our minds is terror. Impregnable and bullying, anxiety in effect shuts down our central faculties.
But there is one nimble way to try to outwit anxiety – and that is with a question that recognises a fundamental feature of anxiety: that it is frequently a smokescreen for something else, something beyond what we consciously think is worrying us, that we’re in fact concerned with or sad about.
One of the peculiar facets of our minds is that we may choose to feel anxious rather than to confront things that may be yet more painful or emotionally awkward in our lives. It can be easier to fret than to know ourselves properly.
We might feel anxious about whether we’re going to get to the airport on time as an escape from the greater challenge of wondering whether this holiday is even worth it and whether our loved ones still love us. Or we might get intensely anxious about a financial issue in order to avoid a yet trickier acknowledgement of our confusion at the course of our emotional lives. Or we may develop a sexual anxiety as an alternative to thinking about our sense of self-worth and the childhood that destroyed it. Panic may be invited to shield us from more profound sources of self-aware agony.
And yet, of course, we are always better off getting to the root cause of our troubles, rather than filling our minds with diversionary panic – and in order to do so, we would be wise at points to ask ourselves a simple but possibly highly revealing question:
‘If your mind wasn’t currently filled with these particular anxious thoughts, what might you have to think about right now?’
The question, as simple in structure as it is acute in design, is liable to unlock a moment of original insight.
The answer might go like this:
– I might realise how sad and lonely I am…
– I might realise how angry I feel towards a friend or a loved one…
– I might realise how abandoned I feel…
And that, of course, is precisely what we should be doing now. Filling our minds with, and processing, all the stuff that our anxiety was trying to keep at bay.
Certain anxieties can be taken at face value, for they do clearly relate to worrying things in the world. But there is another class of them, and a rather large one at that, that is there for no better purpose than to distract us from understanding important parts of ourselves. If we need to suffer, and often we will, the least we can do is to ensure that we are suffering for the right reasons. At points, we should trade our anxiety in for something far more important: a confrontation with the real ambivalence and complexity of our lives – and we should do so thanks to a naively simple question:
‘If your mind wasn’t currently filled with these particular anxious thoughts, what might you have to think about right now?