Life-Enhancing Anxiety: Key to a Revitalized World

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I know it seems counter-intuitive, but close observation suggests that what many of us need now is not less anxiety, but more, at least of a certain kind. I call this kind of anxiety “life-enhancing.”  Life-enhancing anxiety fosters cross-cultural bridge building, creative enrichment, and social engagement.  It can also bolster spiritual well-being. Formally, I define life-enhancing anxiety as that which helps us to live with and make the best of the depth and mystery of existence. Less formally, I define it as our capacity to thrive on the edge of discovery, wonder.

Photo of a man leaping off a rock into green waterThe existential psychologist Rollo May wrote that “freedom and anxiety are two sides of the coin. There is never one without the other,” and my studies—as well as personal experience—confirm this assertion. Anxiety is basically fear of the unknown, and fear of the unknown can be disabling and paralyzing, as many who live with anxiety disorders today can attest, but it can also be invigorating and potentially liberating. Many people, for example, are terrified to try out new ideas, relationships, encounters with people or places foreign to them, but on the opposite side of the spectrum, people who have learned to live with and make the best of their anxiety tend to take more (calculated) risks, seek novel experiences, and thus live more adventurous lives.

I learned this personally following the traumatic loss of my seven-year-old brother when I was two and a half. This shattering event led to a pivotal round of therapy with a child psychoanalyst when I was six years old, and it was a turning point in my life. I was terrified of death and dying, and I had great battles with anxiety and depression—my father feared I was losing touch with reality; but this approximately year-long therapy helped me very gradually move from a position of debilitating withdrawal from life to one of emboldening curiosity and even wonder about life. It helped me shift from a place of paralysis toward the bigger questions of life, like how do we make the most of life while it’s here, to engagement with those questions.

What I realize now, as a psychologist and therapist myself, is that if the same upheaval had occurred to me today at that tender age, I would probably have been besieged by drugs and a series of short, symptom-focused treatments that may have calmed me but not unveiled the deeper struggles or potentialities that the personal and steady relationship with my analyst provided. That does not mean I don’t believe in a place for psychiatric drugs. They can be life-saving at times. But they are not the panacea they are often portrayed as being.

One of the gravest dangers of our contemporary world is that so much of life conspires to eradicate anxiety. This can be seen not only in the vast array of licit and illicit drugs we take but also in the device-mediated communications we engage in, and the mounting despair left in their wake. I wonder if emerging generations will even learn what it’s like to forge sustained face-to-face relationships, to share vulnerabilities and triumphs together, or to experience the raw intensities of nature, the arts, profound intimacy, and impassioned innovation. The more we rely on devices, from cellphones to videos to algorithmically constructed messages, the less we search out our authentic desires, and our fresh unmediated capacities to experience the world.

The musician Nick Cave conveyed some very compelling observations of this problem with his commentary on the new literature-producing device ChatGPT. After someone recruited ChatGPT to produce a song in his style of composing, he said the following:

“Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel.” He went on: “Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence, it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, it has no limitations from which to transcend.”

What I believe Cave is saying here is that we in the Western industrialized world are losing touch with life-enhancing anxiety. We’re losing touch with the capacity to be deeply moved by each other because the things that are attempting to move us cannot be moved themselves. To the extent we continue traveling in this latter direction, we will also likely, to a similar extent, be deprived of profound spiritual and emotional experiences, awe-inspiring experiences. This is because such experiences invariably entail vulnerability, and if one party, namely the device, is incapable of vulnerability, of being poised at the edge of discovery, then we too are likely to experience that mechanized mentality.

If we can’t share in mutual experiences of being hurt and frustrated together, then how can we ever celebrate the exhilaration of being alive together? How can we ever address the estrangement that fuels wars, violence, and hatreds among diverse peoples?

One way we can pursue this is to engage in supportive, structured conversations among diverse people. I have facilitated these formats as a trained moderator for the grassroots group called “Braver Angels” who are active in all 50 states with over 10,000 members. Braver Angels brings self-identified liberals and conservatives together for “living room” style dialogues. Their workshops have received very good feedback from participants.

For example, a 2020-2021 survey of 6,000 Braver Angels participants following their engagements in “Red/Blue” (conservative/liberal) workshops showed that by an overwhelming majority (86%) they felt more understanding of the “other side.” The survey also indicated that 82% of the participants felt less estranged from and more connected with the other side following the workshops.

Now granted, these workshop participants were mostly willing and receptive to engaging with participants on the “other side.” However, it would be a mistake to say that such openness and receptivity was basically the same from the start. By contrast, what the data indicates, and what I and many of my Braver Angel associates witnessed, was that the shifts in empathy and level of estrangement from the beginning to the end of the workshops were marked, and that relatively hard-core partisans underwent striking transformations. To be sure, these weren’t the most strident partisans in our U.S. population who attended Braver Angels workshops. But I believe they did represent a critical mass of the population that if tapped more broadly, could have a major impact on marginalizing those most strident partisans.

I have found similar results with a six-phase experientially oriented dialogue approach I call the Experiential Democracy Dialogue (EDD). The EDD is an intimate, one-on-one approach that brings people from diverse political and cultural backgrounds together for in-depth exploration of each other as human beings, not merely stereotypes or “debating partners.” The result of these very personalized dialogues is that people frequently feel like they can be friends with one another (or at the least peaceable with one another), even if not in synch ideologically or culturally. This is a vital achievement, it seems to me, in these days of hostile divisiveness and sniping. It is a foundation, potentially, for working out common goals or actions.

There are many other ways to cultivate life-enhancing anxiety—or the capacity to live with and make the best of the depth and mystery of existence—both inter- and intrapersonally. Here is a representative sample adapted from my book Life-enhancing Anxiety, which I think will help illuminate what I mean by life-enhancing anxiety and its importance to the human experience. All of the paths below require some degree of vulnerability and anxiety along with wonder and discovery—we have to risk being hurt in order to experience the best of what our existence has to offer. It takes courage to truly engage with these themes because the stakes are so high!

  • Take time to reflect (be present)
  • Develop a capacity to slow down
  • Develop a capacity to savor the moment
  • Focus on what one loves
  • Cultivate openness to the mystery of life (including wonder and surprise)
  • Foster an appreciation of pain as a sometime teacher
  • Nurture an appreciation of balance (for example between acknowledgment of both fragility and boldness)
  • Seek contemplative time alone
  • Seek contemplative time with close others
  • Cultivate a meditation practice or engage in intensive longer-term therapy
  • Cultivate an ability to trust the evolving nature of life
  • Nurture an ability to give oneself over—discerningly and when reasonable avenues are exhausted—to the unknowable
  • Nurture an ability to trust in the ultimately unknowable

To sum, we need to experience less comforting (though potentially highly rewarding) edges of our lives. We need to experience creative edges, cross-cultural edges, spiritual and psychological edges, if we are to lead more fulfilling individual and collective lives. Finally, we need to regain our sense of agency and mystery if we are to live with our whole bodily being, and not just our performative and conditioned reflexes.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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