Reports have been multiplying about the growing national epidemic of anxiety. The medical reports and boom times for Big Pharma attest to this creeping menace. Anxious? What on earth for? Isn’t God in heaven and the U. S. the best country on earth? Well, God may be in heaven, but in fact there are very good reasons why anxiety may be on the rise.
For one thing, anxiety is inherent in our very existence. The inevitability of death is cause for permanent anxiety. Anxiety for many Americans might result from fear of weather-related disasters, fires, floods, drought, tornadoes; of having to face a health-care system that could kill you or wipe you out financially; of missing a paycheck, which for millions of America can be the first step toward homelessness; of being murdered by firearms by cops, gangs, suicide, serial killers, mass murderers, car wrecks, accidents of infinite variety, and so on.
Add a new and uniquely authentic anxiety-amplifyer: the scientific prediction of the end of the world. Oh my, that could spook a few of us out! Unfortunately, the grim facts suggest that we have passed the tipping point of preventing unsustainable climate heating that will destroy the present fabric of world civilization. Young people are rightfully concerned about this and are feeling the rising angst—but using it to inspire protest and (hopefully) transformation.
In America, the average citizen has much to feel anxious about. Two things come to mind--the tiny minority of persons with all the wealth and power over politicians and cultural life and the unsettling fact that the president of the most powerful nation on earth is a moral imbecile and compulsive liar.
Perhaps most pervasive is the anxiety of identity. We have only to think of the millions of immigrants and refugees all over the world, driven by war and violence, without country, property, or money, and the millions of homeless people, everywhere, with many thousands in the United States.
The anxiety of identity is caused by things deeper than loss of home and property. New industrial, technological, and ideological forces are sweeping across the world, and have been since the 18th century, uprooting the planet and belief systems of traditional humanity. That has opened a permanent wound of anxiety about who we are and what, if any, is the point of our existence.
Anxiety of meaning and purpose is the natural consequence of having consciousness. We can always ask questions and subvert the basis of our entire existence. This can be costly in terms of the anxiety the gift of consciousness can cause. Anxiety therefore is guaranteed to accompany us during our sojourn here.
There are two things we can do to reduce and eliminate most anxiety. Neither are unknown or novel. They are unique in that you don’t have to pay anybody or wait for permission or travel anywhere to obtain the ‘treatment.’ The reason is that all we need is our own bodies: our muscular and our breathing systems.
The key point is that both are subject to voluntary control, even subtle manipulation; controls that can surely serve in the reduction of anxiety.
Consider breathing. I recall getting a medical exam in preparation for entry into college. Excited and anxious, the doctor said my blood pressure was up. He took it a second time, but first he told me to take a deep breath, hold it, then slowly expire—I did, and the pressure went down. Breath control, pranayama, as it’s called in yoga, or in the modern methods of Stan Grof, has been used to alter consciousness, calm the mind, and steady the emotions since time immemorial. The basic idea is quite simple and consists of breathing slowly, rhythmically, and consciously. To gain tbe full benefit of breath control, it takes time and practice, but you see progress almost immediately. And it’s there for you, open 24/7, no lines, no cost, no hassle.
Ditto for our next ally, our own muscles. I recall a statement by Edmund Jacobson, author of Progressive Relaxation—the gist of it: “It’s impossible to feel anxiety if the muscles are completely relaxed.” Here again we can put it to the test. But first look at the word anxious, from the Latin, angere--to choke, distress (OED). There is a vague, generalized anticipation of danger. We know about the fight/flight mechanism of our bodies, the readiness to react to threats. The muscles tense up everywhere: eyes, forehead, neck, jaws, shoulders, back, legs; all of that uncertain energy wanting to discharge through muscular action; the inner effect is what we call anxiety, the sensation of being choked, of tension without release.
We can deal with it, but first we have to take hold of our own minds, and direct our attention, systematically and persistently, over the various muscle groups of our body. Anxiety is an effect that can be alleviated or reduced entirely, depending on the quality of objective attention you expend on your own body.
You can experiment on yourself, perhaps get weaned off drugs and other sham or iffy nostrums. An excellent place to begin is to scan the muscles in your head: brow, eyes, jaw, mouth, neck, shoulders, all the way down, progressive, differential relaxation, muscle by muscle. (See Jacobson’s book for details.)
You have a whole hospital in yourself, open at all times, free and ready to work overtime: it has three departments: your own mind, your breathing apparatus and the muscles throughout your body. A first step we can all take toward more fully owning ourselves. There’s plenty to get anxious over; but we can master our anxieties.