Anxiety is not a Choice. How You Live Your Life Is.

Psychological and Spiritual Reflections on Coping with the Pandemic and Other Big Stressors

Dr. Len Gignac, Psychologist (St. Mary’s Parish, Wilno)
March 19,2021

The idea that anxiety and even fear is not a choice may be, at first, startling. The fear of contracting COVID-19 certainly triggered a lot of this discomfort, and people have had to make some difficult choices about how to deal with it all. Like it or not, the truth is that pain and suffering are part of life.  Mental suffering like fear/anxiety  are also experienced in varying degrees at different times. It is important to distinguish between  normal fear/anxiety and that which threaten our threshold of tolerance and begins to run our lives.

Fear and anxiety are normal emotions and actually serve important roles of keeping us safe and alive.  They are natural and not signs of weakness.  Everything that goes on in the mind and body has the prime directive of keeping us safe.  This primary purpose is automatic and hard-wired, so we do not have to learn for example, to duck from a hazardous object that flies over head.  Normal fear and anxiety can also help us to plan for the future, like prompting us to make sure we have enough food and heat in our home.

All emotions are important, psychologically speaking,  because they inform us about what is going on with us. There are no good or bad emotions, they just are. Naturally, we prefer to have the more pleasant ones. But they are a package deal. Research suggests that when we try to mute or resist the uncomfortable ones, we risk muting the pleasant ones as well. That is serious because we may be robbing ourselves of a richer life and causing more personal suffering.

When we are experiencing difficult times, we are likely to experience unpleasant emotions. These show up without our invitation, often with accompanying troublesome thoughts, that are not invited  either. What we do to manage or regulate these disturbing emotions and thoughts will frequently determine the degree of mental suffering.

There is an extraordinarily strong human drive (and instinct) in us to control these very  troubling emotions and thoughts by fighting and resisting, avoiding and escaping and/or passively resigning ourselves to them. You may know these by the neurobiological systems of fight, flight and freeze. Unfortunately, many self-help books provide strategies that encourage fighting and avoiding, with the unfortunate result that uncomfortable symptoms persist and often gain strength. There needs to be a healthier way. A  way that supports both psychological maturity and spiritual growth.

COVID-!9 is a serious matter. However, the over-attention to the almost unending news about it has resulted in some serious psychological effects. The normal fear/anxiety to help us be safe has often gone beyond our threshold of tolerance resulting in exaggerated and harmful symptoms. We have witnessed social unrest, people feeling isolation, blaming and withdrawing from one another. Most of these disturbing actions are efforts to exercise control over  fear. The result is psychological, social and spiritual suffering. Without awareness of what is happening and what is driving it allows these outcomes to continue to the detriment of all.

Why is it so important to develop better approaches to coping with troublesome thoughts and emotions that threaten to cross our threshold of tolerance?

Trying to control strong troublesome symptoms by fighting/resisting or avoiding them often result in chronic psychological difficulties which in turn threaten physical and even spiritual health. Studies in psychoimmunology suggest that the immune system’s ability to overcome the attack of viruses and any disease threat is severely weakened by excessive stress/anxiety/fear/depression. The attempts to control strong emotional symptoms may also result in avoidance as evidenced in addictions of all sorts. Suicidal thoughts and breakdown of relationships are also observed.  Our spiritual health may also suffer. It is very difficult to feel close to God and to experience his love when we are putting most of our efforts in containing our over anxiousness and depression.

It is healthy to remember:
Life is challenging because pain and suffering are inevitable.
There are benefits that may come from suffering.
Thoughts and emotions come and go and escape control.
We have choices NO MATTER WHAT.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

(Victor Frankl – Man’s search for Meaning)

There is lots about life we cannot control and that can be frightening. That is why we keep trying. Great comfort comes from knowing that no matter the situation we still have the freedom to choose.  Of course, we may be limited by our life circumstance.  For instance, we cannot personally choose to stop the pandemic or wipe it away like it is not happening.  Victor Frankl recognized the importance of the personal freedom of choice when he was a prisoner at Auschwitz during WWII.  What he learned saved him from the death of despair.  While he could not change his outward fate, he could choose to adopt the attitude that no one, no matter how evil, could snatch away his self-hood, his soul, his spirit.  This gave him inner strength to persevere. His acceptance of his unchosen suffering led him to the realization that he had a choice not to be run by the evil around him. He placed life  into his daily suffering and had hope.

Holy Scripture reminds us of God’s love and desire for us:

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare, not for evil, to you are future and a hope”.

(Jeremiah 29:11)

Frankl credits his suffering with this life-giving perspective:

“Man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate”.

(Man’s search for Meaning)

Frankl’s choice to accept his situation was not passive resignation but rather an active choice to abandon the urge to control and to compassionately accept himself.  He made an active decision to stop fighting and resisting his suffering in order to follow what is valued most—true freedom.  Like the serenity prayer—true freedom comes not from trying to control things we cannot, by flight (avoidance), fight (resistance) or freezing (shut down).

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response is our growth and our freedom”.

(Man’s search for Meaning)

A Question asked of us all:

“What would my life be like if I did not spend all my energy fighting and resisting my suffering, my stress, my troublesome thoughts, and feelings”?

That place of Freedom of Choice

Fear that threatens our window of tolerance also threatens to inhibit our peace and freedom, and that is very frightening.  Winning back freedom comes not from trying to change things or people to gain more control, but rather  focusing on the values cherished and the person one wants to be. For a Christian, it means being a person completely in line with God’s will. Faith and practice are critical.

The insights contained in “Patris Corde” an Apostolic letter on St. Joseph by Pope Francis (2020) shed light on the space of true freedom and how best to deal with fear that threatens our window of tolerance.

It is suggested that St. Joseph’s acceptance and experience of true freedom are neither based on a clear understanding of what is happening nor on being led by his racing thoughts, and feelings. For St. Joseph in the high stress situation involving whether to take Mary as his wife, an internal recognition followed by acceptance reconciled  what he knew and what he did not know. He was a just man and knew where he stood in the sight of God.  His openness of not “perfectly knowing” and controlling allowed the Holy Spirit to impart the gift of fortitude in the reality of the moment of decision.  In other words, St. Joseph accepts the discomfort of unknowing, relinquishes the need to control, and is reassured that he is doing God’s will.  What is important here is that his acceptance did not do away with the discomfort of fear and anxiety, but it did make it more tolerable. It could be said that his acceptance allowed him to be “more comfortable” with discomfort  He chose life!  He did not choose avoidance even when it may have been the more comfortable path.

What to Do

Consider a philosophy of life—an attitude—that works for embracing life, not just reacting to it, no matter the situation you find yourself.  This is most often not the wide path—but the narrow road. Allow the emotion like fear to inform your life and not run it.  Be willing to be in that space and it will not take you over – beyond your threshold of tolerance. Acceptance, openness and abandonment of the need to control allows the Holy Spirit to give that all important gift of fortitude which provides sufficient spiritual resources to face and even grow in the face of any stressor.

With this in mind we can earnestly and sincerely pray:

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference”.

(Serenity Prayer)

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