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How to Overcome Anxiety by Understanding Your Psyche, 2

April 19th, 2014 · how to overcome anxiety

In my first post on how to overcome anxiety, we saw its instinctual and archetypal roots; in this post, I reflect more on how to make practical use of that kind of awareness.

how to overcome anxiety

Australopithecus afarensis

How can the realization that anxiety often is rooted in instinct and archetype actually help us?  Well to start with…

Stop Beating Yourself Up!

Really!  Too often, people dealing with anxiety conditions engage in vicious self attack, accusing themselves of being weak, morally flawed, ” drama queens”, or even, narcissistic.

Actually, they’re none of these things. The truth is that they’re dealing with a psychic and genetic heritage containing incredible inherited wisdom, but which sometimes gets out of sync with our current world.

Our Primate Inheritance

The young lad pictured above is an Australopithecus, an early human species flourishing between 2.9 and 3.9 million years ago. His grassland savannah world was very different from ours. So, sometimes, psychological mechanisms that we’ve inherited from our early ancestors just won’t fit with conditions in the modern world. It would be a huge mistake to morally condemn ourselves for that! We’ve inherited much ancient wisdom, but sometimes in counselling & psychotherapy we face situations where instinctual or archetypal wires get crossed.

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Good Instinct on the Wrong Track

Consider phobias, for instance.  Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) was appropriate in the environment early humans inhabited, where poisonous creatures were a common danger.  It’s less useful in, say, suburban Toronto, but if it gets activated, it can cripple a person’s life. Similarly, xenophobia, fear of strangers, made sense when people from “the other side of the hill” spelled danger, but it’s very unhelpful for modern people, say, on the subway.

Likewise, embarrassment, shame and guilt are necessary in a social species like ours to ensure group harmony and social cohesion.  Yet when over-blown, these responses can lead to avoidant personality disorder, where a person feels constantly and inappropriately ashamed, inadequate and hypersensitive to what others think.

Again, the instinctual desire for connection and attachment to others is absolutely essential for the survival of a small primate group in a hostile environment.  Yet, it can get distorted into debilitating separation anxiety and anxious attachment, where an individual suffers intense distress at the imagined threat of the loss of a loved one, or even at being out of sight of a loved one.

how to overcome anxiety

“Lucy”

Living with the Two Million Year Old Person

How can we know and appreciate our instinctual and archetypal heritage, yet live with it in a way that keeps anxiety as a useful servant, rather than a debilitating master? Good depth psychotherapy can show us how to overcome anxiety, by living in accord with who we fundamentally are, and with our instinctual and archetypal roots.

PHOTO:  Attribution Share Alike  ©  Christine Warner Hawks ;  Bradshaw Foundation
© 2014 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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How to Overcome Anxiety by Understanding Your Psyche, 1

April 13th, 2014 · how to overcome anxiety

 If we want to understand how to control anxiety, it would help a lot to understand some things  about the workings of the psyche.

how to overcome anxiety
To understand our minds,
we must understand the minds of our ancestors.

Let me start things off with a bang, by saying something provocative:

Thank Goodness We Get Anxious!

It’s true! We live in an era when anxiety is often classified into this or that particular disorder in the psychiatric “Bible” known as the DSM.  Yet, it’s very wise for me to keep in mind the good things my anxiety does for me.  As Jungian psychiatrist Anthony Stevens puts it,

“Psychiatric emphasis on anxiety as a classifiable ‘illness’ has given rise to the erroneous belief, current through most of this century, that anxiety is ‘neurotic’ and that no well-adjusted person should expect to suffer from it.  In fact, the capacity to experience anxiety is indispensable to survival and reproductive success.

An animal incapable of fear is a dead animal.”

Imagine life without anxiety or fear.  The odds of surviving even one days’ rush hour commute would be appallingly low!

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Anxiety Helps Us to Adapt…

It’s well established in psychotherapy now that anxiety is a high-alertness state that enables all animals, including humans to be highly aware of changes in our environment, in response to perceived threats that may be coming our way.  In this state, among other effects, adrenalin is secreted, breathing becomes intense, heart rate goes up and the large muscle groups are mobilized for use in fight, flight, or other survival behaviors.  This is essential where there’s a real threat, but poses huge difficulties if there’s no real danger.

how to overcome anxiety

Anxiety Can Short Circuit Life

For Jungians, as for evolutionary psychologists, anxiety disorders are exaggerated or inappropriate forms of adaptive strategies.

Example: In nature, animals stay on their own, familiar turf.  It can be essential for an animal, or a human, to stay near home turf to avoid threats from predators, unfamiliar territory or hostile tribes.  So, natural selection has created an innate predisposition in humans to stick close to home and to avoid strangers.  

This works for primates in the Olduvai gorge, or Paleolithic tribespeople.  But if these predispositions get activated in a modern, suburban person, and make her or him afraid of going out the front door — that’s a crippling difficulty. It’s essential that this person find a greater sense of security and self-confidence — and quite possibly a different relationship to the archetype of home. 

Discovering how to overcome anxiety using psychotherapy is often about making better friends with our instinctual and archetypal roots.

PHOTO:  Attribution Share Alike  ©  Cambodia4kids.org Beth Kanter ; Duncan McKinnon
© 2014 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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