The Language of Fear

I had a much-needed conversation with my mother this morning over the phone. We touched on topics from the sad state of contemporary poetry to the sadder state of the upcoming election. We talked about the upcoming semester, debated auditions, and discussed my blog, which led to me piecing together a lot of fragments of thought I’ve had at various times on the relationship between “me” and “my anxiety”, and whether that is either a reasonable or a useful distinction to make. Anxiety, as I realized, is multidisciplinary. It is an issue at once intensely personal, economic, societal/cultural, political, and scientific. Anxiety is both my business, nobody’s business, and everybody’s business.  It is an issue which connects me to my innermost self, the grand old policy-makers in Washington, DC, and every scale of human engagement in between. Anxiety affects relationships both personal and professional; I’m not sure there’s any layer of human experience or interaction that it doesn’t permeate. This is both an enlightening thought and an intense responsibility, but it is also a glorious scope of opportunity. Suddenly, through the tiny pinhole of my own individual experience, the whole world opens before me; there are so many ways in which I may be of help. This thought is both revelatory and daunting.

On the level of my personal struggle with anxiety, I imagine I will always have work to do. Whether I choose to own my anxiety as a diagnosis, a disorder, a facet of my personality, a demon to be systematically excised, or an enlightened state, I imagine anxiety will always be a considered element in my existence.

From a scientific standpoint, there is absolutely a need for further research. The cultural and biological bases of anxiety are just beginning to come to light, and there is so, so much more work to be done in finding treatments, both pharmacological and otherwise, that work. We also need to have some important ethical discussions about how to implement such treatments and what the long-term hopes and concerns should be for those who need to decide on a course of action for self-healing.

Societally and culturally speaking, there is definitely much work to be done. A friend of a friend of mine was recently fired from her teaching job in Japan when it became known that she suffered from an anxiety disorder, and despite anxiety affecting over forty million Americans, anxiety disorders are still heavily stigmatized in schools and in the workplace. Many people of all ages, from students to respected experts in their fields, still feel uncomfortable speaking openly about their experiences with anxiety and may feel afraid to seek help from therapists or loved ones, because frankly there still isn’t any kind of widespread understanding of what clinical anxiety is or how to treat and learn from those of us who consider it a part of our lives.

This brings me to my main hypothetical plan of attack: linguistics. This may seem a strange mechanism with which to confront an epidemic, but I believe it’s a very important one. I am not a scientist or a doctor, but I do deal with anxiety, and I do think about words a lot, and I firmly believe that if we are going to make progress on any scale in the way we comprehend and respond to anxiety, we need to recognize the significance of the language we use to discuss it. There are already obvious issues in the process of translating research findings from scientific jargon to communicable knowledge, and even greater problems in finding a common vocabulary on a micro level, among employers, colleagues and friends. The more we can demystify anxiety without dumbing it down, the more we can stamp out its inherent ‘unsayability’, the closer we will come to a society in which people don’t have to exacerbate their anxious natures by feeling the need to conceal their symptoms because they can’t find the words to express themselves, or they feel their efforts at communication will be misunderstood or endanger their jobs or social lives.

We must try, individually and as a global community, to reach a point of compassion, if not of total understanding; though someone who has never suffered a panic attack or a manic or depressive or obsessive episode may not have the breadth of experience to fully empathize with the experience a friend is going through, we can come a lot closer than we’ve tried to so far. No mental health issue is totally unique— our human brains are hard-wired in essentially similar fashions, and even those falling well within the range of ‘normal’, unless humanity is much shallower than I believe, have experienced times that emulate clinical-level symptoms in a much milder, adulterated form. Acknowledging this essential common ground is imperative, as is losing our fear. We must recognize that it is our nature to fear what we don’t understand. I think that, even as we enter the Information Age, our knee-jerk reaction to the unfamiliar is still the ancient urge to run away. It seems unimaginable that we should be able to cause each other such pain.

Yet I, too, have perpetuated this brutal fear, even as I have been deeply hurt by those who have responded to my attempts to express my own anxiety issues with anything short of empathy. I felt it recently when a friend told me of her struggle with schizophrenia. I actually felt afraid to sit next to her, unable to look her in the eye, somehow terrified that it might be somehow ‘contagious’. (For the record, it is impossible to ‘catch’ schizophrenia. This was a completely irrational thought). I felt the same fear, bizarrely, watching the actress Lena Dunham act out an OCD episode on her TV show Girls. I immediately felt ashamed. How can the very people I want to give voice to be the same ones that I shrink from in terror that I might somehow become like them? How can I possibly extend a helping hand to someone who, I’m afraid to touch? The answer, of course, is that I can’t. If I am to help those who, like me, suffer from anxiety disorders, I have to stop fearing them. Driving out the fear means understanding its root cause. This isn’t too difficult to identify: I fear getting close to people whose suffering is similar to mine because I am secretly afraid that, in empathizing with them, their suffering will become mine.

That just won’t happen. It can’t. Anxiety disorders are nothing like the common cold. The only deadly contagions spreading in association with mental illness are false stereotypes and misinformation, both of which are healed by communication. This is my next personal goal: to stop shying away from others who are suffering, to speak with them, and to try to understand. Ultimately, ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ is a false dichotomy, anyway: As my hero Oliver Sacks said, “I suppose we all have a little of everything”. This is of the ultimate importance. While we must work toward a common nonclinical language surrounding mental illness, shared words are merely the communicable expression of a far deeper truth. We must teach and learn from each others’ experiences, respecting individuals’ truths even as we recognize their subjective nature. The breadth of human experience is vast; we are each a unique point on a marvelously diverse continuum. Yet we share a common ground: In our expressions of ourselves, we are all deliciously different, but in the chemicals that drive our basest functions, extrapolating outward to the highest levels of our consciousness, we are measurably the same. It’s time to start speaking the same language.

Grammar and Psychology are intimately combined.

Dysfunctional Turns of Phrase:

“That Gives Me Anxiety”

This is such a popular one among us millenials. It takes away all ownership of one’s own emotions. In putting it this way, the sayer removes herself as the subject of the sentence, ceding ownership and a sense of agency. This removes all responsibility of my feelings from myself. It also removes all sense of agency and control. This is a bad trade-off. To succeed in overcoming anxiety, we must take full responsibility for the notion that all our uncomfortable thoughts and sensations are generated by us, come from within; while this may initially feel uncomfortable, it is also the only way to commandeer our sense of agency and kickstart recovery.

“I Totally Had A Panic Attack”

…When used, as it so often is these days, by someone who has never experienced an actual panic attack. This is an ignorant use of hyperbole that trivializes the experience of those of us who have in fact had panic attacks.

“Such-and-Such Makes Me Anxious”.

No. Anxiety is always a choice. We can shift it from a subconscious to a conscious one, if we like. Sure makes things a lot easier, though it takes some work. You are retraining your brain— it’s very possible, but not necessarily easy. Remember that giving your whole perceived reality a paradigm shift is allowed to be hard work.

“Why Can’t I be Normal?”

Bullshit. See above.

Any question starting or containing the word “Why?”

…Unless you’re a scientist, or a philosopher, or are trying to create art. Not useful or relevant in everyday life; often an inhibitor. “Why?” is not conducive to letting go.

“Anxiety is incurable.”

Wrong attitude. Medicine doesn’t even fully understand what anxiety is yet, much less how to cure it, or whether it should even be cured. After all, certain levels of anxiety are necessary and fruitful and create better human beings. It’s an adaptive response designed to keep us safe and make us productive. This is like those ProActiv ads from my preteen years that sent me into eternal despair by dubbing acne an incurable condition. It may be true or not, depending on how you define the word “curable”, but it certainly isn’t a useful way to think.

Better Ideas From Other People:

“Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.”— Jodi Picot

“Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”

— Hans Selye

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” — William James

…Thoughts? Respond in the comments!

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