I’ve struggled with a lot of “issues” throughout most of my life, i.e. suffered a lot of personal setbacks and emotional traumas of one sort or another. It took me a long, long time to finally realize that all of my issues were really just the superficial manifestations of one big fundamental issue, which was anxiety. I grew up with constant anxiety and it has been with me, to varying degrees, through my whole life. When I read Jaak Panksepp’s book The Archeology of Mind I had an important insight about my own experience. Panksepp explains that parental affection toward children, and affectionate play among children, are necessary for normal healthy brain development in the children (actually this is a common property of all mammalian nervous systems, and even young rats who are deprived of the comforting warmth of contact with other rats, and the opportunity to play with other rats, will grow up to have anxiety disorders), and that children who are raised without affection inevitably grow up to suffer from chronic anxiety as a result of abnormal nervous-system development (the good news is that such nervous pathology can actually be remedied to some extent through meditation practice, which has been shown to improve brain functioning through neuroplasticity, reducing the activity of the parts of the brain which enable the anxiety response). Kind of like me. I was raised by an emotionally abusive father and an emotionally distant mother. The family in which I grew up was absolutely devoid of affection of any kind. For many years in my youth I felt that there was something profoundly wrong but I didn’t know what it was. But eventually I did come to see that my dysfunction was a natural result of my early experience and upbringing.

Through the years I met several other people, and even developed intimate relationships with some of them, who (as it became painfully clear) also had serious problems with anxiety, for similar reasons. All of them had been raised in families that were devoid of affection, and some of these people had far worse anxiety even than I did. In fact when I learned to start observing people’s behavior closely, I saw many examples of this problem in the people I came in contact with. It seemed almost like an epidemic of emotional suffering everywhere. Clearly I was not alone in my struggle.

In my mature years, as many of my long-held egotistical preoccupations and ambitions had mostly run their course and started to dwindle away from my consciousness, a much greater and more important challenge came to dominate my attention, the need to confront my anxiety and to try to master it. This came to be a major priority in my life. I’ve made quite a bit of progress on this, mostly from meditation practice and from cultivating the habit of trying to observe my own mental states. I haven’t banished anxiety from my life completely, nor do I think it’s possible for me to do so. But I think I have a good understanding of my own anxiety now. I try to become aware of when it comes into my mind and I observe it closely. Instead of fighting against it directly, which is usually futile and often ends up just increasing the anxiety, I try to see it clearly. So the anxiety stays contained, it doesn’t come to dominate my mind, and it runs its course naturally and eventually fades.

The most important things I’ve learned: (1) Anxiety is a natural biological phenomenon, (2) The best way to deal with it is to develop one’s ability to pay attention to what is actually going on and to not get lost in one’s own thoughts, and especially to develop the ability to observe one’s own mental processes, and (3) anxiety is a universal human phenomenon and everyone struggles with it to some extent, so we should remember that in our dealings with other people and try to treat them with patience and compassion.

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