Every thinking person sometimes experiences anxiety. Types of anxiety and several situations of occurrence. How to tame anxiety and how to use it in life?
Since ancient times, philosophy has tried to cure our fears. But the feeling of anxiety is an important component of morality and spiritual search of a thinking person. An article from Aeon on what types of anxiety are, why some are necessary and helpful, and how to deal with them.
At a dinner party, you sit next to a man named Sam. You met him recently, but it turns out that you have several mutual friends, so you try to make a good impression. Everything seems to be going well at first. The conversation flows naturally, and your interlocutor demonstrates in every possible way that he considers you a witty and interesting person.
And then suddenly, completely unexpectedly, the mood somehow fades. Sam looks you less in the eye. The conversation doesn't go well. But why? Is it because of the story you told about your escapade at school? Because of your opinion on the elections? You look at Sam. It is obvious that he is cold with you. What have you done? Using a quiet moment during a feast, you begin to scroll through the episodes of your conversation in your head.
Strangely, Sam's chilling will shock you. In short, you are alarmed, and a whole series of things are happening at once. You begin to think hard, trying to understand what just happened and what can be said to restore the former understanding. You become more careful and respectful. For a long time you hesitate to re-enter into a conversation with Sam, and when you do start a conversation, you apologize more if you accidentally interrupted him. You even try to insert some comments here and there in the hope that they will clarify or smooth over your past political statements. You feel it all. Anxiety takes over. You are afraid that you will fail.
But what is really bad about anxiety? Is it just an unpleasant feeling that needs to be overcome, or is it something more? Traditionally it is believed (and this tradition goes back to the Stoics, Aristotle and Plato) that this is something more than just a feeling. This is much worse than an unpleasant feeling. When we worry, we worry and reflect, and this not only distracts us, but completely absorbs us. Moreover, because the feeling of anxiety is so unpleasant, we act on impulse and are ready to do anything in the hope of driving away this feeling. Therefore, according to the classical opinion, such emotions are best avoided.
Immanuel Kant saw an even bigger problem in the feeling of anxiety: it is incompatible with virtue. According to Kant, a virtuous person is one who subordinated all his abilities and inclinations to reason.
Consequently, he writes in The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), the real strength of virtue lies in a calm mind. And when we are worried, our mind is far from calm. We lack the rational control that distinguishes virtue. Our behavior is determined by our emotions, not our mind. Is that bad.
The perception of anxiety as a dark and destructive force certainly has its well-known proponents. But with all this, I am sure that this opinion is wrong. This statement is contrary to conventional wisdom, but anxiety can be beneficial. In fact, I hope to convince you that excitement is central to our morality and successful social life. I’ll even say this: we need to worry more, but we need to work on this feeling. Worrying is necessary, and we must do it right.
What does this dinner party example say about this amazing feeling? First of all, it reveals the essence of this phenomenon. The anxiety we usually experience is a rather unpleasant reaction to vague threats or danger. For example, excitement at a party is a reaction to the unknown. You don't know why the conversation with Sam took such an awkward turn. You want to make a good impression and you are unsure of your success. As a result, you feel embarrassed, an attack of anxiety or anxiety - this is anxiety.
This example also shows how this feeling forces us to do something that will help us find a way to resolve an uncomfortable situation. For example, think carefully if you might have said something inappropriate. To do this, you replay the fragments of the conversation in your head. Anxiety also encourages you to iron out your mistakes, hence your more respectful tone.
This view of anxiety as a useful feeling is in stark contrast to the skepticism with which Kant and others viewed it. But this view is supported by clinical psychologists such as David Barlow, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Other Disorders at Boston University.
In Anxiety and Its Disorders (2002), Barlow explains that anxiety warns us of a potentially dangerous situation and activates internal psychological mechanisms. These mechanisms are important because they enable a person to function at a higher and more mature level. For example, with ordinary non-clinical social anxiety, we experience a feeling that allows us to better understand and communicate with other people.
But ordinary social anxiety is not the only type of anxiety we experience. We may also be concerned about the existence of God or the possibility of breaking a promise. What about these forms of anxiety? Are these also good feelings for us? This is often the case.
Social anxiety, as in Sam's example, is associated with a certain kind of insecurity: will you sound funny? This often leads to respect and caution: this type of behavior helps reduce the risk of making a bad impression. But let's take another well-known form of anxiety: it can be defined as the fear of punishment. You know you broke the rules, but you don't know if you will be punished for it or not. Given the source of this fear, this anxiety will force you to try to make amends with, for example, a proactive apology.
And then there is existential anxiety, which is associated with the uncertainty of the existence of God or your place in the world. In this case, it is not surprising that when we are so anxious, we tend to reflect on our religious beliefs and ask a priest or other "specialists" to help us resolve our doubts.
It is very important to realize that anxiety manifests itself in these forms. First of all, it allows you to see that different types of anxiety - social, existential, or punishment - can help resolve problematic issues. But more importantly, it turns out that some types of anxiety are more valuable than others. Taking the wrong spoon at dinner is one thing, but breaking an important promise is another. So, fear that helps us realize what would be the right thing to do from a moral point of view, let's call it moral anxiety, will be more valuable than social anxiety, which helps us understand how to avoid the wrath of Mrs. Good Manners.
Let's analyze now another scenario. Let's say your mother has Alzheimer's and her condition has worsened over the past year. You can no longer provide her with proper care. You have to follow the doctor's advice and send her to a nursing home where she will be cared for. But this decision worries you, and you begin to reflect in detail about the situation you are faced with. Your mother was always afraid of nursing homes. In fact, even last year, before her situation deteriorated so much, you promised never to put her in such a place.
So you have a big problem. Place her in a nursing home or not? Because of this, you do not sleep at night. You constantly return to this in your thoughts. The feeling that grips you is definitely a kind of anxiety. But notice how different it is from the previously discussed situations. You are not afraid for yourself, as is the case with fear of punishment, and you do not seek to avoid humiliation, as is the case with social anxiety. You are concerned about the question of how to do the right thing.
Thus, moral anxiety is the feeling we experience when faced with difficult moral choices. We want to do the right thing, but we are not sure what is right. Moreover, this uncertainty forces us to study the situation, to find out what will be right from the point of view of morality. We start thinking about the existing options, weighing the pros and cons. We can also reach out to people we trust for more information. From all this, we can conclude that moral anxiety works in two ways: as a signal that warns that we are facing a difficult moral decision, and as a motivator that encourages us to think and gather information.
"Moral anxiety in the face of a difficult decision is an integral part of the moral personality."
It seems that this feeling is also useful. Political scientist Michael McQueen and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published research in the American Journal of Political Science in 2010 that demonstrated that moral and political anxiety drives people to think bigger. McQueen found that people are either nervous or angry when their political views are challenged. There is nothing surprising. But the interesting thing is that those who are nervous are more inclined to seek additional information on the issues under discussion, seeking to learn more about both points of view. And what is most surprising of all, is ready to look for new solutions to the problem. And the one who is angry, on the contrary, is less eager to search for new information, and when he discovers some additional data, he pays attention only to what coincides with his original point of view.
But the value of moral anxiety lies not only in the ability to help make the right decisions. After all, your anxiety about breaking a promise to your mother reflects your good side of nature: your susceptibility to a difficult moral life. Anyone who did not react to the situation in the same way would appear devoid of moral character. It's like not feeling angry at the sight of a vile crime. Kant's rationalistic view of virtue seems to overlook something important, namely that moral anxiety in the face of a difficult decision is an integral part of the moral person. This awakens the moral consciousness and attention that are at the center of virtuous thought and action.
But it is also true that anxiety can be harmful. An example of this is clinical cases such as social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cases where fear completely dominates healthy people. And then the question may arise, is anxiety really as useful as I tried to portray it?
It is important to say two things here. First, recognizing (and we have to admit this) that anxiety can sometimes be a problem does not undermine the claim that, in general, it produces beneficial emotions. In this case, the situation with moral anxiety does not differ from our perception of fear or anger: these emotions are important, although sometimes they can be expressed in the form of phobias or rage. Second, given the fact that moral anxiety can get out of control, it (like fear or anger) becomes more valuable if this feeling is developed.
But this does not mean that we should strive to experience it more often and more intensely. Rather, moral anxiety is something that we must learn to feel at the right time and in the right way. For example, we must learn to understand when anxiety is the result of uncertainty about how to act morally (as opposed to uncertainty about whether we will be punished or embarrassed).
Working on feelings of moral anxiety also means developing the ability to properly direct our anxiety. As we have noted, the power of anxiety lies in part in its ability to force us to do something that will help us get rid of that feeling. But this can be done in many ways. With a difficult moral choice, as in the example with a sick mother, you can get rid of anxiety simply by drinking a sedative or shifting responsibility to one of your relatives. But that would be an attempt to get away from the source of the anxiety. Handling your fears correctly means also overcoming your own insecurities and fighting the urge to run away from a decision.
It is obvious that the development of a feeling of moral anxiety (that is, the ability to be aware of it at the right time and respond to it correctly) is hard work. But nobody said it was easy to be good, did they?