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Richard Zinbarg Ph.D.


Sacred Anxiety: Anxiety as an Emblem of Spirituality

Might your anxiety be an emblem of your spirituality?

Anxiety research indicates that almost all animals experience anxiety—all the way down at least to the level of the sea slug. (You might wonder how one can infer that a sea slug experiences anxiety, but that will have to be the topic of a future post—perhaps by a different blogger!) This is the anxiety that Freud called reality anxiety. It is the anxiety that a zebra might feel when thirsty and approaching a riverbank where there are some large predators such as crocodiles or lions. This is the anxiety a person might feel when walking alone at night in a rough neighborhood. Thus, the hallmark of reality anxiety is that an objectively dangerous threat is looming.

There is a second form of anxiety that also does not appear to be uniquely human—anxiety that is overwhelming and impairs functioning. The current diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association recognizes several different anxiety disorders—panic disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, social phobia, specific phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. One thing that each of these conditions shares in common is anxiety that is intense enough to impair functioning. We know that other animals are also capable of experiencing anxiety that is intense enough to impair functioning. For example, in a 1936 study, Yerkes and Yerkes (p. 59) described a full-grown male chimpanzee—Jack—who had such a strong fear of snakes that even a toy snake “caused Jack to bare his teeth and draw back. He struck at it several times, mouth open, and having climbed out of reach he vocalized gently as if talking excitedly to himself. He looked at the [toy] snake from time to time and rather abstractedly groomed himself”.

There is at least one form of anxiety, however, that is almost certainly uniquely human. This is the anxiety a 60-year-old current patient of mine feels when trying to sleep at night and realizing that he has not yet written the song he has dreamed of writing—and wondering if he will write it before he dies. Or the anxiety that a former patient of mine felt when she would find herself in large, open spaces and felt overwhelmed with feelings of smallness and being alone.

This anxiety is focused on awareness of our mortality and/or awareness of our individuality and therefore of being separate, small beings in a vast universe cut off from the source of creation (whatever that might be) and from each other. This is the anxiety that Robert Gerzon, in his wonderful book titled Finding Serenity In the Age of Anxiety calls "sacred anxiety." My old, hippie rabbi from Eugene, Oregon, Rabbi Hannan Sills, used to preach that the function of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was precisely to increase this anxiety.

Why would we possibly want to increase this anxiety? Why does Gerzon call it sacred? The way Rabbi Hannan used to put it was that when we allow ourselves to confront this anxiety, we have two choices. One of these choices is to refuse to get out of bed in the morning, pull the covers over our head and say, "Woe is me!" (or engage in other forms of avoidance, including numbing ourselves with alcohol or drugs). The dangers of this choice include some that are obvious and some that are more subtle. Obviously, the more we engage in avoidance, the more constricted our lives become—possibly even to the point where one could question whether life is worth living. Perhaps more subtly, Gerzon contends that if we avoid and try to hide from sacred anxiety, it will still be with us but outside of consciousness and leak out in other ways—perhaps as panic attacks that feel as if they come from out of the blue or when we feel alone or when we feel sensations that we interpret as a sign of an impending physical catastrophe such as a heart attack.

The other choice when we become conscious of our sacred anxiety is to try to celebrate each and every limited, precious gift of a moment that we do receive—if the anxiety is focused on mortality—or to try to connect with something larger than ourselves (e.g., a spiritual connection and/or a connection with a community of other people) if the anxiety is focused on separateness. Put somewhat differently, sacred anxiety can help motivate us to keep our priorities in order and live in accordance with our highest values. This is also the theme of Stephen Levine’s book entitled A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last.

For several years now, I have been carrying around a sand timer in my pocket to cultivate awareness of the finite amount of time I have on this earth, and believe it has helped me to curb my anger with my family and replace it with more acts of loving-kindness (I don’t want my spouse’s or my children’s last memory of me to be one of me yelling). I keep a supply of sand timers in my office to give to those of my patients who are willing to accept it, and hope they have found it useful.

Surely, carrying a sand timer is not the only way to cultivate awareness of sacred anxiety. Indeed, if memory serves, Levine includes some exercises along these lines in his book (such as writing one’s own obituary). Even if you don’t care to cultivate sacred anxiety, if you have struggled mightily with anxiety in your life and viewed your anxiety as a sign of personal weakness or defect, Gerzon’s notion of sacred anxiety offers a different perspective on your anxiety. That is, Gerzon tells us that your anxiety is an emblem of your spirituality. If you believe you have more anxiety than others around you, rather than being weak or defect, it may instead be the case that you are more deeply grappling with the fundamental challenges that arise, to paraphrase Howard Liddell, as the shadow of human intelligence and that shape and define spirituality.


About the Author

Richard Zinbarg, Ph.D., is a psychology professor and director of the Anxiety and Panic Treatment Program at Northwestern University.