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Deconstructing Anxiety: Finding the True Source of Fear for Profound Healing

By Todd E. Pressman, Ph.D.

Fear and fulfillment. These are the prime movers of our life, the two great forces that drive the human experience.

Fear is a constant companion. It whispers in our ears of lurking dangers and impending catastrophes. Fulfillment is our high purpose, that which calls us from our most secret places and compels us to discover a freedom and wholeness far beyond what we had thought possible.

These two forces engage in a constant battle. If we forgo our fulfillment and succumb to fear, we are never fully satisfied. But, fear warns us, if we venture forth, we risk the unknown; we are sure to encounter all sorts of perils and should, instead, “play it safe”.

A STRANGE PHENOMENON

Our solution, as a humanity, is to try to satisfy both drives. This results in a strange phenomenon: we convince ourselves that fear is the best strategy for finding and securing fulfillment. We have an impulse for fulfillment—a desire to connect with someone or an urge for creative expression—and immediately consult our fear to negotiate the terms. Fear becomes our provocateur, rooting out from dark corners anything that might signal danger. It becomes our warning device for taking the actions that will protect our fulfillment.

Unfortunately, the strategy backfires; it is impossible to be fulfilled while we are in fear. Not only does fear keep our attention on danger, but we know we can never truly prevent all potential threats. Our response to this is to dig in more deeply, devoting ourselves to an even greater control over danger. We fool ourselves into believing we are working toward the day when we will finally achieve the safety we seek, free to get about the business of fulfillment.  Of course, that day never comes. As the Chinese proverb states, “We are always preparing to live.”

This is the human drama that has been playing out in every culture of every age. Our first and greatest drive is for fulfillment—we know this experience whenever we watch a child filled with the joy of being—and we will not be satisfied until we reach it. Our soul rattles its cage not just for relief from anxiety but to actively create our good.

But the seduction of fear is powerful. We can’t really afford to dwell in the joy of the moment, it tells us. We must keep our eye on looming dangers or the possibility of a sneak attack. So we make the decision to take care of fear first, somehow hoping to get things under control in a complete and permanent way.

When we look around at our current state of affairs, the tragic effects of this strategy are all too evident. Security is the overwhelming goal for most of us, with fulfillment often postponed to the point of being forgotten. It has us live in ever-more-constricted ways, squeezing our once expansive, exuberant selves into a very narrow psychic territory.

We learn to delay gratification, taking care of responsibilities and handling problems, before we can get around to what makes life really worthwhile. There seems to be always one more thing to handle, and then one more and one more. Again and again we tolerate the frustration of postponing our fulfillment until we become rigidified in a posture of waiting. When this goes on long enough, we can indeed forget our original goal.

The great irony of our approach to fulfillment, using fear as our guide, is that it is precisely the approach that will keep us from it. Over a lifetime of such practice, we see our opportunity for fulfillment slipping by. We become stunned by how hard life can be, how much we’ve lost, how far we have fallen from the dreams and high expectations of our early ideals. Because we have sought to get control over a fulfillment that never comes, the futility of the effort catches up with us and we find either that we never did have control or that it wasn’t truly fulfilling after all.

WHAT’S MISSING?

What makes fear so compelling? Why have we become so entrenched in its strategy to secure fulfillment, even when we see that it isn’t working and can make us miserable? If we consider clinical anxiety as simply an exaggerated form of the fear we all struggle with*, the problem can truly be said to be epidemic, the need universal.  How does anxiety co-opt the brain to become so maddeningly fixed and unyielding? What are we missing in our understanding?

The problem, I propose, is that we have not yet fully deconstructed anxiety. We have not yet achieved a successful analysis of precisely how it works—the exact mechanisms that create it, maintain it, give it its power, and make it so intractable. Our paradigms have been incomplete. We need a comprehensive model for understanding and working with the fear at the root of our difficulties, a Rosetta Stone for cracking its code.

Such a model would not only unravel the mystery of anxiety but would illuminate its secret gift. For, as we have said in a previous article**, finding fear’s cure reveals the path to transcending suffering in general, providing a map to deep fulfillment, healthy relationships, and a more functional world.

And why has this been so elusive? Why are we only sometimes successful in our treatments for anxiety? Simply put, whenever a therapeutic intervention fails to produce the desired results, it is because it has not yet fully deconstructed fear in these ways. Fear’s trickery depends upon its ability to convince us not to look at it deeply.  In clinical language, we say fear is hallmarked by avoidance behaviors. We seem to be reflexively wired to respond to fear with these avoidance behaviors.

THE FEAR OF LOOKING AT FEAR

Since the beginnings of psychotherapy, we have understood the importance of reversing this avoidance response, whether through insight into the unconscious, cognitive transformations, various types of exposure therapy, etc. Yet this wiring is powerful, our defenses are resistant, and we still have not explored the nature of fear in a complete enough way. Even if we think we are intimately familiar with it, many of the fast and fleeting thoughts behind the scenes will slip by unexamined. In truth, this is because we are subtly afraid to look at them and discover all they have to teach us. We don’t want to look at them because we know they will require a complete paradigmatic shift in our understanding of who we are and how we deal with life.

We have become so invested in our fear-based ways of negotiating the world that we will not easily give them up. Most of us resist looking at fear as much as possible. But even those who pursue a deeper exploration of the psyche can get lost in its meandering catacombs, missing the ways in which fear is distorting their compass. The fear of looking at fear is the first obstacle to overcome in our search for freedom and fulfillment. It is the source of our human predicament and that which preserves it as well.

Our existing strategies for dealing with fear fall short of real change in direct proportion to the extent that they do not look at and deconstruct the fear fully.  We need an approach that reliably digs up the fear at the bedrock of our suffering with insight into what gives rise to the suffering in the first place.

Those who have sought out this answer, intrepid explorers of consciousness, have demonstrated enormous courage to bring back maps of the terrain they traveled. Freud at one point thought he was going crazy as he conducted his own self-analysis. Jung had to acknowledge his “shadow” in order to deal with it effectively. The Buddha determined he would sit under the Bodhi tree until he either reached enlightenment or died trying. Their courage, and that of others, has paved a way for the rest of us, showing that we must look at and examine fear, digging it up fully, if we are to become free. The hero’s journey, the dark night of the soul, and the death-rebirth archetype all describe the same path: we must confront and move through fear all the way in order to find our higher good.

Facing fear fully, in safe and manageable ways but wholly without reservation, then, becomes the key to finding the true source of suffering and opening a path to freedom. And resolving the fear of facing fear is the first essential step in this process.  We must be willing to follow fear to its most subterranean hideout. But when finally there, standing resolutely in the face of that from which we have been running our entire life, we may at last come to know our true “enemy,” shake hands with it, and even befriend it. With this, we reveal the gift it held, discovering what it was calling for all along and satisfying its need in a new and more fulfilling way.

In traveling this path, we will come to see that the whole of humanity has been engaged in an endless cycle of fear built upon a faulty strategy for securing fulfillment. But seeing the problem clearly like this makes transformation possible.  No longer are we merely a figure caught in a play. When we take hold of the fear that has been directing from behind the scenes, we can rewrite the script in more fulfilling ways. Finding the anxiety at the root of things gives us a sort of X-ray vision where we see through our automatic assumptions about life and reveal the truth they were hiding. Like discovering the “man behind the curtain” in The Wizard of Oz, we lose our fear when we understand its source.

Our task, then, is to fully deconstruct anxiety, learning how to navigate through the subterfuges of fear and, ultimately, how to design a life lived from free choice. Rather than being twisted and distorted by the ways of fear, such a life reaches for a transcendent truth, one that has the potential for resolving suffering at its source and restoring us to our original fulfillment.

In future blog posts, we will begin to lay out exactly how the Deconstructing Anxiety model takes up this task.

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*In these blog posts, the word “fear” is considered as synonymous with “anxiety”, as per the Buddhist concept that the anxiety created by anticipating a future event has the same effect in the mind as the fear experienced by an imminent threat.

**See Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment
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This is an edited excerpt adapted from Todd Pressman’s Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment (2019), published with permission from Rowman and Littlefield Publishing.  All rights reserved.

Copyright 2020 by Todd Pressman