How to Think About Anxiety

Most anxiety is flop sweat.

Posted Oct 01, 2019

While a small percentage of anxiety reactions are caused by brain malfunctions, the vast majority of them are psychological in nature. Anxiety is often used to label fear reactions where it is unclear how to effectively avoid or escape aversive outcomes, or even whether action should be taken. Skinner said it’s the feeling that accompanies not knowing what to do.

We might not know what to do because a threat is present that we can’t identify. For example, if you haven’t heard from an elderly family member for a while, even though—or because—you haven’t been keeping track, you might find yourself anxious when the phone rings.

For another example, you might live with someone who occasionally explodes when there’s a mess, and you might be said to be afraid of the person’s anger but anxious about the state of the living space. The unsorted mail on the table and the children’s toys in the corner may not strike you as messy, but they evoke a conditioned fear reaction whose source is hard to specify. The other person comes home and explodes, screaming about running out of milk or about an unexpected bill, also unaware that the messiness is the source of the anger. You are anxious because bad things happen but you aren’t sure what sets them off, and you’re unable to plan accordingly.

When you are both the anxious person and the explosive person, you become anxious when you are primed for anger. For example, if you are occasionally really mean to yourself when you look in the mirror, you may find yourself feeling anxious around mirrors, thinking, though, that you are anxious about your complexion or your weight. If you learn to be uniformly kind or encouraging rather than mean when you look in the mirror, mirrors will stop making you anxious, and you will either accept (if you specialize in kindness) or change (if you specialize in encouragement) the way you look. (Therapy can teach you what it’s like to be seen with kindness and encouragement, but if you experience encouragement as a kind of meanness because it connotes that you are not already perfect, it won’t work.)

Intermittent aversive outcomes produce more anxiety than reliably bad outcomes. Their conditions are harder to identify and they are harder to develop an effective strategy against. If someone is always mean to you, you avoid them altogether or just grin and bear it if you can’t avoid them. If they are intermittently mean to you, you will find yourself tilted toward getting them to be nice to you, and then you’ll feel anxious that you’re not nailing it.

By far, the most common source of anxiety is our ability to disappoint ourselves. We can imagine things going well, but the world is full of cues that things will go as they usually do, and these cues become harbingers of disappointment. We can imagine ourselves being better than we are, but we always turn out to be (in the long run) who we actually are, and everything about us is a threat to the image we are trying to pull off.

If you agree with Erving Goffman that most of life is spent trying to pull off a performance (whether the role be expert or real man or dutiful daughter or reliable friend or good person) and that the key issue, almost always, is whether our performance will be credited or discredited, then it follows that most anxiety is flop sweat, the alarm we feel when it looks like a performance isn’t going well.

We also perform—and flop—for ourselves. We create a narrative about who we are that almost invariably leaves out or minimizes certain aspects of our personhood, including regrettable things we’ve done. Every one of us is like a major corporation that commissions a writer to create a company biography; the result invariably omits the greed and selfishness that can be found in any corporate history.

What makes us so much more interesting than a corporation is that many of us want to look very different from others. You might think that any member of our species would prefer to appear victorious, sexually successful, effectively competitive, socially adept, intelligent, and honorable—like Julius Caesar, in short. But no, some of us want to look angelic (never aggressive or sexual), or transcendent (not with an athletic body but with no body at all), or victimized (“no one has suffered as I have”), or weak (“nothing is my fault”), or saintly (empathic with strangers).

We create a narrative about who we are, a narrative summarized in the single word, “I,” in what we mean when we say that word and in what goes on inside us that we don’t mean. This narrative is threatened by emotions, thoughts, and memories that don’t fit the narrative, and we develop strategies for ignoring these or attributing them to external forces or, especially, forgetting about them.

This is what Freud meant by the ego (he used “I,” but American translators wanted it to sound more scientific) and the mechanisms of defense. The self is fragile to the extent that emotions occur, or are bound to occur, that don’t fit the narrative about who we are. The more unrealistic the narrative, the easier it is to discredit, and the more anxiety the person will feel. Perfectionism breeds constant anxiety (although it is often experienced, before anxiety itself is felt, as anger at others or at the world, as depressive resignation and failure, or as a snare from which one must free oneself). When Jung said that symptoms are the guerilla warfare of the psyche, he meant that the marginalized aspects of the self will disrupt the master narrative if they don’t get their due.

You might think that we could cure anxiety by relinquishing any effort to come across as better than we are, but this won’t work because radical self-acceptance is itself inhuman and impossible to perform. Yes, perhaps, if we could love ourselves exactly as we are, we would never undertake a performance we couldn’t pull off, and we would in theory never feel flop sweat. We wouldn’t try to be an expert, only a relatively knowledgeable practitioner; we wouldn’t try to be a good person, only a pretty good person. But two things stand in our way.

One is that when we are around other people, we want to fit in (because we are humans), and fitting in often means not accepting ourselves. Belching at the table summarizes this conundrum, but it also applies to how and when to express emotions, sexuality, and aggression. You may have noticed that humans are extremely sexual and extremely aggressive and extremely socially responsive animals, and we can’t both accept our sexuality and aggression and get along with others unless we are willing to try to disguise these aspects of ourselves.

Also, radical self-acceptance would mean contentment with ourselves as we are right now and a zen-like focus on the present moment, neither of which is human, and therefore both of which lead to narratives that are bound to be discredited. We are built to imagine, because imagination leads to improvement. If we are radically self-accepting, it means we won’t get any better at being human (or at anything else) than we are now.

The best solution is to treat ourselves the way good parents treat their kids, the way good teachers treat their students, and the way good therapists treat their patients: with affection, humor, curiosity, and, yes, expectations of getting better, but with an “oops” attitude toward setbacks. In other words, it’s better to accept mistakes than to reframe them as non-mistakes. With that attitude, we can also clarify what role we’re in and what’s expected of us in a given moment, and we can permit ourselves to laugh at the idea of pulling off impossible performances.