Anything could happen, at any moment (and when it does, you'll cope)

The therapist and writer Sheryl Paul defines anxiety as "a feeling of dread, agitation, or foreboding associated with a danger that does not exist in the present moment." I'm guessing you can relate; I certainly can. (Holding this sort of feeling at bay is, I think, the secret motive behind many people's interest in productivity techniques, personal development and so on.) Both parts of Paul's definition are crucial: anxiety is the feeling that something very bad might be going to happen – combined with the absence or near-absence of any real evidence to believe it actually will. Which is extremely bizarre, when you think about it, and worth a closer look, if only because – and I speak from experience – going around all day with a pit in your stomach is no way to live. 

 

In my last book, The Antidote, I explored a Stoic technique for coping with this sort of worry called "the premeditation of evils" – the practice of soberly envisaging what the real worst-case scenario in any given situation could truly be. Suppose you're anxious about giving a speech. It helps to imagine, in detail, the experience of embarrassing yourself before an audience of hundreds, then shuffling off stage and hiding under the bedcovers – because while that's certainly unpleasant, it's also pretty clearly copeable with. And since anxiety is the fear of a danger with which you couldn't cope, the exercise has the effect of cutting your worries down to size.

 

I still recommend (and use) that practice today. But I've come to see it has a limitation. It risks implying that nothing catastrophically bad could ever really happen. Whereas the anxious person knows, if only subconsciously, that it could. Public humiliation won't kill you, but in fact it's always the case that the next hour or week or month could contain a bereavement, a terrible accident, or a shattering medical diagnosis. So the attempt to reassure yourself that nothing too appalling is coming down the pike will always run up against the gnawing realisation that actually you can't be sure.

 

I think that's part of what Paul means in calling her (excellent) book The Wisdom of Anxiety, echoing the title of Alan Watts's great book The Wisdom of Insecurity. Anxiety isn't a silly mistake about how bad things could get. It's a logical response to what's entailed by the human situation – thrown into the river of time, unable to know what's coming let alone to control it, condemned to the condition the author Robert Saltzman calls "total vulnerability to events", yet obliged to try to build a meaningful and enjoyable life anyway. 

 

My partner vividly describes the teenage epiphany when she realised, after a childhood steeped in moviegoing, that if something devastating were to happen to her, it wouldn't be foreshadowed by sinister music so that at least she could mentally prepare. Nope: it would just happen. Anything always could.

 

In this predicament, you won't find the deepest solace in compulsive planning, or from visualising worst-case scenarios. You find it from seeing a) that there's nothing you could ever do to change this state of affairs, so you might as well relax into it if you can; and b) that literally everyone's in the same boat, so at least you needn't worry that, existentially speaking, anyone else is more in command of their lives than you are.

 

And you find it above all, in my experience, not with any kind of mental insight or cognitive exercise, but in action: inching forward into the future, doing tiny bits of the things that are causing the anxiety, committing a little more to the relationships you're feeling tentative about – and discovering, in each moment, further concrete evidence than in fact you can cope with what reality tosses your way. ("It's easier to act yourself into new ways of thinking than to think yourself into new ways of acting.") My life so far provides zero reason to believe I'll ever attain the degree of control over the future I always thought I needed. But then again, my track record of not yet having been entirely overwhelmed by existence suggests that maybe I never needed it to begin with. 

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