People commonly come to my clinical practice with an experience of anxiety – it’s usually accompanied with a bodily symptom such as a panic attack, a tightening of the chest, a racing of the heart etc. Sometimes it is described as social anxiety, simplified to ‘my anxiety’. People talk about associated feelings of uneasiness, apprehension and worry. But what is most disturbing is a feeling of helplessness and a sense of the unknown. And also the sense that I have no idea what it means?
My clinical experience starts from the idea that the root of anxiety is an occurrence of a traumatic situation. It is derived from an experience of helplessness in the face of an excessive accumulation of excitation which cannot be dealt with. Sigmund Freud best suggests that “we cannot find that anxiety has any function other than that of being a signal for the avoidance of a danger-situation” (Freud, 1926, p.133). That danger is typically associated with the danger of a loss or separation. But the problem usually that we don’t know what it is that might be lost – if we did, we would be doing something about it.
And, in this situation, we may have to start accepting that we don’t know/we can’t know what the danger is, with the possibility that it lies in the unconscious.
My idea is that what is usually most at risk of being lost when trapped by anxiety is our desire, about that homing instinct inside of us that is at the core of what we are. I see anxiety as being a signal that we need to address of a loss of our identity, our core purpose, and a signal of a disconnection from a sense of our fate. And, when seen this way, perhaps we might be able to then see anxiety as a helpful insight from the core of our being that we now have to do some work that might have been put off in the past – but now is the time for change.
And what to do about anxiety? One way is to go down the road of medication and. indeed, this may be a good way to stabilise the individual in the middle of an existential threat. But I confess that the only way that I trust to deal effectively with anxiety is to start the process of interrogating the unconscious by speaking to another. And speaking with the knowledge that I don’t know what I’m looking for, no target, but that the process of speaking will help to dislodge the various boulders that prevent me from getting at what I desire. And that’s what is at the root of psychoanalysis which privileges the unconscious process.
I continue myself with my own analysis, in part because I haven’t fully uncovered what my desire is. But I know for sure that, as I continue the work, that I seem less and less to have to contend with anxiety.
Freud, S. (1926). Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XX (1925-1926): pp.75-176