Anxiety is a key underlying principle in Phenomenological-Existentialist thought (Spinelli, 2007). Mick Cooper has written on the multitude of various existential theories available. In being asked the meaning of Existentialism he explains, “it is facing one’s own reality” (Cooper, 2003, p1). Existential psychotherapy places much of its beliefs on certain “givens” or “ultimate concerns” of existence. As noted by Irvin D.Yalom (1980) these ‘givens’, make up much of the “inner conflict within.” These are the “inevitability of death, freedom and its attendant responsibility, existential isolation (referring to Phenomenology), and meaningless” (Yalom, 1980, p9).
I have spent most of my life trying escape the harsh reality of my early childhood experiences. Coming from a family where emotions were denied I spent most of my life trying to avoid them. Having feelings is necessary for mental and physical health. It is only when my mental health was being affected in the form of substance misuse that I sought out therapeutic intervention. In this essay I will demonstrate my journey with the conflict of anxiety and how it has brought me to a place of discovery.
My anxiety manifests in intimate relationships where there is a fear of abandonment, rejection, isolation and loss. It is my belief that anxiety is a normal human emotion and necessary for our survival as social beings. It is an actual physical feeling, our body’s natural feedback mechanism telling us to be alert to help us to grow and evolve. As much as it is necessary, I believe that how we learn to navigate through anxiety is rooted in how our brains are formed in childhood. As well as the existential thinkers Spinelli, Cooper and van Deurzen, I will also be drawing on neuroscience theory provided by Sue Gerhardt and David Brooks and their research on how we physically and emotionally respond to stress in the social world. Having the opportunity in my own personal therapy to explore the phenomena of anxiety I can sit with my frustrations today and break through the chains of self-deception in order to make better choices.
ANXIETY AS MY IDENTITY: “A considerable portion of one’s life energy is consumed in the denial of death” (Yalom, 1980, p41). In experiencing my mother’s early death (aged 45) from alcoholism when I was 13, I determined that I would live a different life. It is only with later insight I learned how much my unattended anger and confusion formed in childhood had prevented me from making the right choices later on. Her death was experienced at a time when aspects of my identity were being formed. Her neglect left me tremendously fearful that my own existence was “insignificant” (van Deurzen and Dryden, 2007, p199) especially after she had stopped living. Paradoxically, although my intentions of living differently were good, I went down a similar path to my mother in the way of substance misuse. Feeling anxious is very much part of living and for me gaining insight around this has been the key to freedom for the better life I desire. It is also through giving myself permission to have these feelings of discomfort without changing them that I can live a life that is “intense, passionate and whole” (Cooper, 2003, p25).
The dictionary definition of ‘Anxiety’ is “to experience worry or unease” (Oxford, 2001). This for me understates the emotional power of anxiety. In my case a better description would be, “Psychological distress and anxiety are of course bodily feelings – i.e., physical sensations with a meaning. They are neither imaginary (‘in the mind’) nor purely the result of mechanical breakdown, but expressive of a certain kind of embodied relation with the world” (Smail, 1984).
ANXIETY AS MY IDENTITY:
My experience of ‘psychological distress’ and the physical ‘meaning’ I experienced began in early childhood. By the time I was 4 years old my mother was drinking alcohol heavily to blackout. One of my earliest memories is trying