"We have seen how Buddhism anticipated the reluctant conclusions of modern psychology: guilt and anxiety are not adventitious but intrinsic to the ego." ~ David L. Roy
Anxiety, a complex psychological phenomenon common to the human experience, can often become overwhelming, disruptive, and deeply distressing. It's such a potent sensation that the reality of its impact is seldom questioned. However, some theorists have posited that the feelings of anxiety could potentially be a form of self-deception. This post will delve into this proposition from three unique theoretical lenses: the polyvagal theory, cognitive dissonance, and terror management theory.
Polyvagal theory postulates that anxiety emerges from the activation of our body's age-old defense mechanisms. The vagus nerve, a critical link between the brain and our internal organs, helps regulate our nervous system's responses. It's responsible for shifting our body into a state of fight-or-flight or shutdown and dissociation when a threat is perceived. The physiological manifestations associated with anxiety—like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, or a sense of numbness—are the result of these shifts.
From the standpoint of the polyvagal theory, these physical symptoms of anxiety are genuine biological and neurological reactions, rather than outright deceptions. However, the theory also suggests that our defense mechanisms can sometimes get triggered without an actual threat present. This is based on our perceptual interpretation of danger, which can sometimes be faulty. Consequently, anxiety may be seen as a misfired alarm signal.
Cognitive dissonance theory offers another perspective. This theory explains how mental stress arises when our deeply held beliefs and values clash with new, contradictory information. To alleviate this discomfort, we might choose to ignore or deny these conflicting facts. When our psychological constructs that provide stability and meaning are challenged, it can trigger anxiety.
So, while the physical symptoms of anxiety are real, the cognitive processes and beliefs causing the anxiety could be based on misconceptions or falsehoods. Our belief systems, designed to provide security and certainty, can be shaken when confronted with opposing evidence. The resulting anxiety works to uphold our existing mental models of reality. In this context, anxiety serves as a shield for our potentially misleading cognitive structures.
From Carl Rogers' perspective, the anxiety we all face sometimes is not outright deception but represents our inner experiences in that moment. Rogers believed each person has within them an innate wisdom and ability for self-healing, growth, and choice - what he called an actualizing tendency.
Rogers would say our anxiety often emerges from a sense of incompatibility between our internal experiences and external realities. Cognitive dissonance theory illustrates how conflicting information can disrupt the frameworks that give us stability and meaning. From Roger's perspective, this shows how anxiety emerges from a disruption in our natural actualizing tendency as we strive for consistency within ourselves.
Rather than seeing anxiety as weakness or deception, Rogers believed it held valuable information about our lived experience in that moment. By gaining insight into ourselves with empathy and non-judgment, we can work to resolve inner conflicts adaptively. If left to rigidly defend fixed beliefs, our anxiety might generalize needlessly. But with acceptance and understanding of ourselves, we can stay centered and move toward greater congruence.
Buddhist psychology sees anxiety as arising from an exaggerated sense of self. When we mistakenly see events as happening to an isolated, permanent "me", we experience anxiety. Recognizing the interdependence and impermanence of things helps reveal the illusion of a separate anxious self. Accepting uncertainty and change as fundamental truths of life counters the lie that permanent security can be found. The goal is to feel anxiety mindfully, but not become overwhelmed or defined by it. With discipline and practice, anxiety can be transformed from a source of suffering to one of growth.
Terror management theory proposes that our fear of mortality fundamentally drives anxiety. Our cultural worldviews provide a framework and significance that help mitigate this existential dread. When confronted with reminders of our mortality, our anxiety levels rise, leading us to cling more fervently to our belief systems that buffer against anxiety.
According to the terror management theory, anxiety is a legitimate response to the human condition. However, if left unchecked, anxiety might overly generalize death-related fears. Furthermore, a rigid adherence to these culturally mediated defenses can have its own drawbacks. A balanced level of anxiety might be key to maintaining a healthy awareness of mortality while promoting adaptable living.
The different perspectives above provide valuable insights into anxiety's biological and psychological aspects. They illustrate how anxiety arises from evolved defense mechanisms, disrupted belief structures, and existential fears -- all valid parts of being human. However, they also suggest anxiety can sometimes be exacerbated or generalized due to faulty perceptions, rigid beliefs, or an inability to accept inner conflict. From Rogers' view, accepting anxiety with empathy allows us to use it constructively in our lifelong process of self-actualization.
The various lenses discussed reveal anxiety contains elements of both accuracy and potential distortion. Both facets coexist as natural features of our complex inner worlds and outward circumstances. With understanding and compassion for anxiety, we can navigate it in a balanced, adaptive manner. Rather than fighting or denying anxiety, we can gain awareness of what it seeks to communicate about our experiences. Doing so may help us resolve inner turmoil and continue growing towards our highest human potential.
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