Diffuse anxiety is anarchic; it follows no rules and tramples over entire mental territories with lawless ease. Diffuse anxiety is an exhausting nervousness; it is not characterized by the tautness of healthy anticipation or excitement. It is not coiled tension destined for a productive outlet, you see.
Instead, diffuse anxiety is a decidedly unproductive free-floating fear. Most of us know a thing or two about it and some of us will admit we are enslaved by it. Diffuse anxiety has a paradoxical quality to it — at once trapping, freezing, immobilizing but at the same time engaged in frantic bouts of mental energy-expenditure, busily story-spinning and scenario-imagining.
I have earlier posited that diffuse anxiety can be curiously addictive because its frenetic mental action masquerades as industriousness. It is this aspect of “doing something” that becomes addictive. So-called diffuse anxiety addicts may find comfort in the knowledge that they are “covering their bases,” for instance, by spending their creativity on imagining worst-case scenarios, all in the name of “preparation” or “looking ahead.”
Do not be fooled. While the temporary knowledge that comes from drawing every conceivable outcome may feel good for a moment, that “being ahead” notion disappears in a flash, replaced by the onslaught of fresh anxieties, attached to the ever-molting timeline of a life, a life that is always charging ahead and devilishly unpredictable in this respect.
The habit of diffuse anxiety, then, while temporarily relieving, has drastic consequences in the long-term. It certainly does not forge us into stronger human beings, for one thing. It continually depletes our energies, scraping away at the utility of our natural fight/flight responses by keeping them in overdrive; thus we are less able to trust our instincts if their messages are cheapened by hyper-arousal, if we have no baseline to return to.
I see diffuse anxiety as untamed, runaway, ever-present, ever-shifting mental agitation. Sometimes, it can be something we encourage. It can be something we become addicted to. It can even be a weak spot in our inborn personality. None of these negate the fact that it can be governed. It can be harnessed, chopped-up, and subordinated. This requires courage and discipline, sure, but it is an immeasurably valuable task.
Diffuse anxiety is so very common these days — one might even say a plague afflicting the newest crop of young people. Sometimes I wonder why this is. Could it be that the less removed we are from nature, the more stuck in our heads we become? This at least ratchets up the risk of diffuse anxiety, I would presume.
Think about it: our ancestors tilled fields. Survival was the main preoccupying focus of life. Living close to the earth and the harsh, time-consuming demands of simple life-sustaining, the “space” for becoming stuck in a cognitive swamp was comparably smaller. Westerners today live further from nature, thus leaving us more frequently acquainted with the abstract interiority of our own minds.
So too has our increasing detachment from the immediacy of the present moment and subsequent preoccupation with the future likely fed the cultural beast of anxiety. Adding to this mix is the predominance of Western identity — that is, the idea that we are our own brand, and one prone to ever-more-blatant advertising attempts. The pressures of Western individual identity perhaps heighten the risk of diffuse anxiety, clamoring to remind us of all that we could be.
The 21st century in particular has given rise to the so-called cult of self-improvement — these ambition-spiked, hyper-intentional, mind-centric crusades which leave us exposed to our own shortcomings, haunted by our potential, and the tidal wave of realizable possibilities, and compelled to be busy doing something. (A desire for which perpetual, aimless anxiety regrettably appears to satisfy.)
It is not hard to see how out of this lovely tornado of present trends we find ourselves with record numbers of anxious people on our hands. I find it interesting to note that in agrarian times, one was far more burdened by the cruel realities of nature — storm, famine, disease, early death. But in our modern age, respectably elevated from these old dangers, the price we have had to pay is one of greater cognitive consciousness. We used to live off the land, you see. Now, increasingly, we live off our minds.
Modernity has broken barriers, brought innovation, opened our lives up to bigger freedoms and bigger possibilities. But there is a cost. An “epidemic” of diffuse anxiety may merely be the excess of this cultural shift sloshing over the rim.
Historical tracing aside, there are a number of things we can do to reduce diffuse anxiety which gallops riotously over so many lives, wreaking confusion and leeching energy in the process. This is an important project, an imperative conquering, an expressly necessary battle for modern human beings to engage in. Where to begin? With a forged and conscious pact made to the Self.
Responsibility to the Self
So much of attending to diffuse anxiety is drawing boundaries. It is, after all, the task of establishing order over something unruly and feverishly reproducing. Before one can clamp down in this manner (easier said than done, am I right?) there is something crucial that must come to pass first, commonly not included in anxiety battle-plans. It is making an express commitment to the Self, something along the lines of “I have an obligation towards myself to manage my anxiety and to declare dominion over it. I have an obligation towards myself to feel healthy, organized, and in-charge in regards to my relationship with anxiety.”
We forget the magical properties of making this sort of linguistic dare. We underestimate our ability to follow our own edicts if affirmed frequently enough. We do not fully understand the action potential of language. Which is why speaking such sentences, like the ones highlighted above, repetitiously, daily, in the spirit of affirmations, can be such a surprising tonic.
The commitment-making itself is relieving to the soul — that brave sentence slicing cleanly through the turbulent fog. This courageous endeavor is enough to make us hold ourselves with greater confidence, emboldened as we are by some kind of demand cutting through the sickening, cyclical patterns of diffuse anxiety.
Even if you doubt your own ability at first, you must distinguish a pact with yourself and repeat it back to yourself. Eventually your voice will stop shaking and you might actually begin to see yourself as standing atop something rather than lost and tumbling in something — that something being anxiety itself.
Policy-making need not be confined to legislative chambers and corporate offices. It is just as applicable to government of the Self. I would not be surprised if this prospect lacks appeal to you, the reader. But allow me to explain. In order to digest all that life throws at us and maintain our momentum, it is necessary to develop shortcuts, so to speak. Heuristics, even.
We must decide how to deal with a particular anxiety, unresolved problem, or developing conflict. We must organize the facts and efficiently summarize, and discern when it is best to pack up consideration of an issue and to shelve it for later.
Disclaimer: compartmentalization arrives easier for some than others, this I understand. But if we already established the aforementioned “responsibility to the self” we may feel ourselves pleasantly surprised by our ability to shelve that which is anxiety-provoking. We ought to be compelled to do so out of a commitment to take care of ourselves.
Do not underestimate your ability to heed this responsibility once it is bravely articulated. Policy-making goes something like this: “This is my next step — my promised plan for further action. And I am henceforth released from the obligation to continue thinking about this issue.” This is really the business of focusing one’s attention very directly on the source of anxiety (or the problem at hand) and responsibly tidying up.
So often when we are slogging through perpetual anxiety we presume we are “facing something”. Very often we are not and the nervous unease we feel is actually a consequence of our lack of direct confrontation with the real issue. That and the unpleasant knowledge that we’re distracting ourselves with the deceiving energy-burning “industriousness” of entertaining anxious thoughts.
Policy-making is an essential aspect of self-government, then — a necessary process of bringing order and claiming authority. The moral of the story? Consider yourself on the throne and not your anxiety with you stumbling at its feet in unquestioning capitulation.
Remember: Your head is your home
Sometimes what’s behind diffuse anxiety is a motivation of self-protection. The desire to think of all conceivable scenarios before they happen. Or the desire for the knowledge that we “did all we could,” fretted righteously, suffered appropriately, obediently sacrificed ourselves on the altar of something that worries us.
We shouldn’t assume that anxiety doesn’t have a motivation. It may be compulsive, with the eerily familiar pattern of addiction, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t contrived some rationalization for its stubborn hold on our lives. We must take care, then, to make our primary motivation not the unproductive self-protection that so often comes packaged with diffuse anxiety but self-preservation instead.
After all, we must confront, organize, decide. We must partake in these things to resist becoming immobilized by runaway anxiety. We must begin with the motivation: “My head is my home and I have an obligation to preserve it.” Make no mistake: routine housekeeping is required but this is precisely what is required for your head to be a place of comfort and order.
And is it not correct to say that anxiety has us simultaneously trapped in our minds yet also trying to escape direct confrontation, trying to distract us? Just as a child is not nurtured in an unhealthy, tension-soaked home, so too will you not be nurtured in a “mind-home” of the same.
In the beginning of the battle against diffuse anxiety is a declaration of promise to the Self uttered into the void and later, the busy but noble work of drawing boundaries, deciding (even when you are not sure but simply for the sake of decision), slicing and dicing, shelving and that whole business of policy-making, which you, who have now dethroned and superseded diffuse anxiety have at your lucky disposal.