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The Anxiety of Freedom

Making authentic choices

Freedom and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. Freedom means openness, being flexible, and ready to change for the sake of greater human values. Freedom is our capacity to mold and create ourselves. Freedom is the capacity to become what we truly are. This freedom is essentially an inner state, which is what gives one the experience of autonomy, and the capacity to choose their own attitude.

However, when people realize that they are actually free to choose in a situation, it creates anxiety. That is why most people do not like making their own choices. They would rather have someone else or society does it for them. The freedom to make choices can generate anxiety, because deciding means being changed. We resist change because change is loss, even one that is in our best interest.

Individuals with intense anxiety prefer the predictable and familiar routines. The familiar routines reduce anxiety. When people feel threatened and anxious they become more rigid, and when in doubt they tend to become dogmatic; and then they lose their own vitality. They use traditional value to build a defense to hide behind it. But this comes at a price. The imposition of any particular viewpoint toward any understanding restricts our openness and flexibility. In his book, “The escape from freedom”, Eric Fromm argued that this anxiety leads many people to seek security and authority in periods of social disruption (e.g., the rise of Nazism in response to anxiety in 1930s in Germany).

Psychologist May equates pause to freedom. That is, freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to choose our response. Pausing is essential to the process of reflection. The pause momentarily suspends our automatic reaction, and our responses no longer blindly follow stimulus (e.g., as we remark in making important decision “let me sleep on it.”). The pause is also the moment when a person is most vulnerable to anxiety. Many people flee from silence because of the anxiety the silence brings. They constantly seek the company of some noise from cell phone or music. These rigid and safety seeking behaviors are barriers to freedom and prevents us from discovering that our anxiety is exaggerated.

Another common way of calming anxious feelings includes alcohol and drugs. But the drinking to escape anxiety puts one on a treadmill: the next day, when the anxiety increases, the drinking must increase as well. Overuse of alcohol and drugs erodes our freedom to imagine, to reflect, and to discover some possibility that would have helped us cope with the anxiety in the first place. Thus, we escape the anxiety by surrendering our freedom. Addictions allow for few alternatives in behaviors. From this view, the purpose treatment is to set people free from addictions and self-defeating habits.

People who suffer from anxiety and psychological fears (e.g., social anxiety) spend much of their lives avoiding experiences to avoid anxiety. The choice to take back his or her freedom, or seek help can be a true act of courage. By doing so one is now able to move toward more authentic existing. Courage is at the heart of authentic choices. Making authentic choices in the face existential anxiety is psychological courage in action. Courage is strength in facing one’s destructive habits. For example, when a person voluntarily engages in recovering from alcoholism, he has to face unpleasant feeling in the process. In these cases, people stand up to their challenges by restructuring their beliefs or systematically desensitizing themselves to the fears.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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