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4 Major Sources of Anxiety and What to Do About Them

Sometimes, the thing to do is to accept that nothing can be done.

Anxiety, in Skinner’s definition, is the feeling of not knowing what to do, but to this bit of wisdom we must add that anxious people must also think that there is something to be done, or else they would shrug and move on. Put differently, sometimes the thing to do is to accept that nothing can be done. If a skill is a behavior that is effective in a given situation, then anxiety is the sign of a skill deficit. Anxiety is almost always the burglar alarm, not the burglar—the sign of a problem rather than the problem itself. For this reason, I won’t be recommending medication, relaxation, or mindfulness as things to do about anxiety; instead, I will recommend doing something about whatever makes you anxious.

1. Life is confusing. Humans evolved with the capacity to feel anxious, presumably because this capacity confers a survival advantage. If fear prompts us to fight, flee, or freeze, then anxiety prompts us to do something about our situation. Acceptance is recommended when there is nothing to be done (and I’m fine with mindfulness and relaxation in this context, as paths to acceptance rather than as ways to manage anxiety). Acceptance is particularly needed for ordinariness, uncertainty, and the inevitability of death. However, acceptance is a tall order given the intensity of our desire to do something, and so instead we develop mythologies, explanatory fictions, and a sense of being special. It’s not hard to see how religion capitalizes on our basic anxieties to provide a salve for death, uncertainty, and ordinariness by positing a wonderful relationship with a god who tells you what to do and how to beat death. And this is even easier to see if by “religion” we mean not the famous, organized systems but what Goffman calls “a corpus of cautionary tales [and] newsy stories [that] elegantly confirm a frame-relevant view of the workings of the world.” Anxiety is the feeling you get when this compendium doesn’t confirm your expectations. Philosophy, history, and literature can provide other stories that work. And, yes, so can religion (in its philosophical, historical, and literary garb).

A history of misfortune or punishment creates conditions under which people constantly feel that something needs to be done because something bad is imminent. When further misfortune or punishment is no longer likely, the situation is like the existential one of seeking solutions for problems that cannot be fixed. Here, too, rituals, superstitions, myths, and magical thinking are likely salves.

2. Learning a skill takes effort. Anxiety at its best signals your ignorance and drives a need to find out what you can do. You can’t do anything about the inevitability of death, but you can take steps to ensure that the cake comes out moist by reading cookbooks, that the interview goes better by rehearsing your answers, and that your social appeal increases by checking your effect on others. Anxiety is a spur to competency, and the best reaction to it is usually to develop your skills.

3. Learning a skill requires acknowledgment that you don’t already have it. Anxiety tells us that we don’t know what to do, and unfortunately, we often believe that we are supposed to know what to do, especially when we are under the sway of perfectionism. For example, a man proud of his intelligence gets anxious solving a crossword puzzle because he believes it should come easy to him. He uses a pen because pencils are for dullards. He ought to respond by working harder at the puzzle and switching to pencil, but instead he protects his perfectionism by criticizing the puzzle or proclaiming boredom. A woman believes she ought to be liked by everyone, and instead of exploring what about herself might be annoying, she criticizes anyone who does not succumb to her charms. Psychotherapy organized around acceptance, whether it’s called ACT or intersubjectivity, can help.

4. Learning a skill requires acknowledgment that you need it. Anxiety is compounded when what we ought to do is something we think we are not the type of person to do. A woman sees her career withering, and she knows that asserting her own value to her company would help, but she is committed to placating rather than confronting others. A man watches his children muffle their play when he comes home from work, and he knows that playing with them would help, but he is committed to performing lord of the manor. Psychotherapy organized around self-discovery can help.

So anxiety is fostered by arrogance, which is often disguised as passivity and sheepishness, or as freedom and obliviousness, depending on what the person is arrogant about. Anxiety stems from perfectionism, from stigmatizing mistakes and thinking answers should come easily. Anxiety is the opposite of having a skill, but skill acquisition requires humility, flexibility, and effort, the very traits that perfectionism won’t tolerate.