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Deep Thoughts on the Origin, History, and Experience of Anxiety

shoes hangin off cliff over ocean

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

Those words are from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s treatise The Concept of Anxiety. His definition of anxiety makes intuitive sense. Anxiety is a mental condition you feel in your body. It can seize your gut with a nausea-inducing dizziness.

Freedom comes with choice, and choice – specifically, the thought of making the wrong one – can cause that awful feeling in your gut. For anxious personalities, the more options we have before us, the more opportunity we have to get it wrong and screw things up.

When I first encountered Kierkegaard’s quote on dizziness, I was eager to find out more. I ordered his book The Concept of Anxiety hoping to find some answers about my own struggles with this condition.

I began to suspect otherwise when I read the full title on the cover: The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin.

It’s a short book but very dense and challenging. There’s a lot about Adam and original sin, but what it comes down to is that “anxiety is about nothing.” It’s the nature of existence and how we deal with all the nothingness around us that causes such gut-wrenching dizziness.

Interesting reading but not much help in dealing with anxiety.

I had a similar experience, though for different reasons, reading Scott Stossel’s 2014 book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. Stossel is a successful journalist and national editor of The Atlantic magazine. The book recounts his struggles with anxiety interwoven with a history of the condition from a historical, psychological, and cultural perspective.

If you are looking for tips on managing anxiety or guidance on the most effective treatments, neither of these books is for you. Both can help you understand the causes of anxiety and its place in society, but they offer little in the way of practical solutions.

Looking for Tips and Practical Advice on Living with Anxiety?

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Mindfulness Meditations for Anxiety: 100 Simple Practices to Find Peace Right Now

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My library copy of My Age of Anxiety is exactly 400 pages. Kierkegaard’s treatise on The Concept of Anxiety is only 162 pages, though it took me twice as long to read.

I could not fully grasp how this nineteenth-century Danish philosopher made the leap from anxiety to his complicated religious beliefs. However, I can see that for him, as for many people today, anxiety was experienced as a spiritual crisis. Perhaps he was onto something. Many current methods of coping with anxiety involve spiritual practices such as mindfulness meditation.

Kierkegaard’s book is centered around the image of a man standing at the edge of a cliff before an abyss of endless possibilities. The man is afraid of accidentally falling to his death. At the same time, he experiences the unbearable anxiety of knowing that he is free to jump if he chooses. This is the dizziness of freedom.

Kierkegaard’s message is that to lead a full life, we must be open to all possibilities, which inevitably causes a certain amount of anxiety.

Stossel’s book was an easy read after puzzling my way through Kierkegaard. My Age of Anxiety includes several anecdotes from the author’s life, from crippling stage fright at an elementary school award ceremony—to nearly passing out in the middle of his wedding vows—to an episode at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port while researching a book on Sargent Shriver.

In that last misadventure, a case of nervous bowels resulted in a catastrophic eruption of the toilet during a formal function at the mansion. Stossel fled the scene with a soiled towel around his waist and sewage-soaked pants in hand only to run into John F. Kennedy, Jr. in the hallway. Remember the awful bathroom scene from Dumb and Dumber? Imagine doing that in front of the Kennedys and their guests.

Stossel writes candidly about his struggles with anxiety-induced substance use and the terrors of air travel and public speaking. His accounts of paralyzing anxiety are worse than anything I have experienced. Yet, he has managed to have a successful career in the public spotlight, continuing to travel and speak to live audiences despite his awful phobias.

Stossel describes his experiences with just about every form of anxiety treatment currently available. A few helped, if only for a time, but none have led to lasting relief, let alone a cure.

The biggest takeaway for me is that someone can experience debilitating, lifelong symptoms of anxiety and still have a rich, rewarding life with worthy achievements and accolades. The chief lesson seems to be that anxiety is highly unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it is possible to live with it.

Neither Kierkegaard nor Stossel offers easy solutions to the problem of anxiety. What they have in common is a view that anxiety is the unavoidable price we pay for our ability to imagine multiple options to any situation and our freedom to choose between them. Maybe that explains why mindfulness practice can help so much in coping with it.

After all, mindfulness is a practice of thinking about our thoughts, living with them in the moment, so we’re not overwhelmed by all the dizzying possibilities of the future.

The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin
by Soren Kierkegaard

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind
by Scott Stossel

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