I’ve searched for an answer to this question for years: What is anxiety? I tend to feel as if I have a handle on things if I understand them, so this question circles around in my mind often. Per usual, I started by looking up the definition. The dictionary defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Alright. I don’t disagree with this; indeed, the definition is anxiety itself (future-tripping, unknown, vague feelings and stressors). But it also didn’t bring the relief that sometimes simple awareness carries.
So I got together a stack of books and notes from my years of researching / scribbling and paged through them for something more concrete. Reneau Peurifoy defines it, in conjunction with fear, in his book Anxiety, Phobias, & Panic like this: “Anxiety is usually triggered by a vague or ill-defined threat, while fear is usually triggered by a well-defined threat, such as a car skidding on wet pavement.” Vague, but helpful to juxtapose it with fear? I searched on…
Karla McLaren says it this way in her book, The Language of Emotions: “There are two distinct types of worry and anxiety. The first is a constant sense of dread, wariness, nervousness, and apprehension that arises when we’re clogged with rejected and dishonored fears… The second type of worry and anxiety is a response to fears of the unknown.” The concept of being “clogged with rejected and dishonored fears” was new to me when I first came across her book and I really liked it. It felt like something I could sink my teeth into and work on for a while. A lifetime, probably.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual basically defines anxiety by listing supposed symptoms of anxiety so that clinicians have a checklist to test against when looking for a diagnosis. Sigmund Freud originally (predictably) said that anxiety emerged as a result of repressed sexual desires, and then later wrote that anxiety came about from unconscious psychic discord. Søren Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Anaïs Nin wrote, “Anxiety is love’s greatest killer.”
Philosophers, writers, psychologists, and psychiatric associations all seemed to be pointing toward the same beast, and defining anxiety with similar language and feelings, but Scott Stossel really sums it up best in the opening chapter of his book My Age of Anxiety when he says, exasperatedly, to his therapist upon researching his book: “I’m supposed to be writing a book about anxiety and I can’t even work out what the basic definition of anxiety is. In all these thousands of pages I’ve pored through, I’ve come across hundreds of definitions. Many of them are similar to one another, but many others contradict each other. I don’t know which one to use.”
What do we *do* with this? When we are looking for answers and working to help ourselves out of the cave of anxiety and feeling like we’re somewhere on the spectrum of *interested to positively desperate* in trying to understand what the hell is going on in our minds and bodies, what good is this lack of a substantial explanation of anxiety?
Friends, I’ve come to this conclusion: we have our own understanding of anxiety and the experience of it. We play by our own rules and are held captive by our individual unreadiness or unique misfires in perception. While we orbit the same creature, we have our own relationship with it. As with so, so many things, there is no “one size fits all” in expression or approach.
Which is a microcosm of alllllllllll the work that we do. It’s not *out there*; it’s *in here*. I had to let loose on the idea of a definition for anxiety that came from *out there* and would help, somehow, describe what was going on *in here*. I had to let go of the idea that a teacher or author or poet would describe my thoughts and feelings *out there* in a way that felt complete and total *in here*.
It’s not that plenty of great thinkers and other sensitive human beings who have traveled their path of anxiety haven’t written and shared things that I feel to be true in the marrow of my own self; they have and they will and I love them for it. But I’ve ultimately had to turn *in here* for the greatest and most absolute definition as I experience and understand anxiety to be for me. I’ve had to hire myself as the teacher and author and poet of my story.
And I invite you to do the same. Engage with yourself to teach and write authoritatively on who you are and what you’re experiencing. Have faith in yourself as the best guide on this path, through the pain and through the healing. Choose yourself to craft the fundamental and ever-changing narrative on what it’s like for you to be you. You’ve always been and always will be the star expert in you…