The curse or function of anxiety?

Should we try and get rid of anxiety? Freud noticed the protective function of anxiety as an indication of danger. He distinguished it from shock, the encounter with a violence or sexuality that we had not been prepared for.

Should we really be asking: What function does anxiety have?

Adrian Leader a psychoanalyst with an interest in anxiety takes the example of childhood phobias. Clinicians know that the protracted phobias that occur between the ages of three and six are usually best left untreated. They show that the child is reorganising their world, creating new limits and boundaries through the animal or place they are afraid of. When this is done, the phobia will disappear. The child has transformed anxiety into fear. Fear is always fear of something, but anxiety involves a more nameless dread.


We can learn a lot from children and adults with autism for whom anxiety is a constant factor of their lives. It builds during the day, fed by sensory inputs from within and outside of the body, by overwhelming events and situations and by boredom.


The medical model – causal diagnostic approach –  lumps fear and anxiety together, yet if someone has succeeded in becoming afraid of something it means that they have been able to deal with their anxiety. We feel anxious but often cannot grasp its cause. This lack of clarity is exploited by those proponents of the medical model offering labels such as “anxiety disorder” or “mental health disorder” or some other complex reference to neurology. Sometimes anxiety is free floating and seems to want to find an event or situation to cling onto or which we can blame or attribute our feelings onto.


Our compass of anxiety was derived from learning from the experience of people on the autistic spectrum (Newton and Wilson, unpublished model) and proposes 4 points:

We specialise in autism in mainstream schools, inclusion of students with disabilities, education psychology, autism education, community building and training on inclusion.

Clearly the model is relevant to us all and where we can typically find ourselves when very anxious.


What should we do if the anxiety feels too much?


The above compass gives clues as to what human beings need to do avoid melt down or shut down. Whilst individuals may be judged or negatively assessed for behaving in any of these ways they are generally functional. However, if the amount of anxiety grows and either these activities are prevented or are overpowered by external or internal forces of anxiety then melt down or shut down may occur.


Other people can help. By helping us to be comfortable, to feel accepted, to reduce the stressors around us that trigger our anxious feelings, to patiently wait for our return, to just be there, to reduce pressure on us or simply to be supportive – all will help!


Careful listening and dialogue can often help a person of any age gain some understanding of their situation, and perhaps more of a sense of choice and control, but there can never be any guarantee that anxiety won’t come back – less invasively perhaps and less destructively but occupying nonetheless a crucial place in human life.


At its most frightening our anxiety leaves us suddenly alone and in danger. In this sense, anxiety never lies.


Before rushing to get rid of it, we must reflect on what it is there to do and what it would mean to live without it. Rather than bemoaning a new age of anxiety, we need to examine more closely the anxieties of our age.

(Adrian Leader – Psychoanalyst)

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