Why Anxiety Is The Greatest Teacher

Every one of us has experienced the dread of anxiety at some point in our lives.

When anxiety grabs our attention, we deeply wish for it to vanish. But maybe it is precisely what we need to feel. And maybe it is our greatest teacher in disguise. Perhaps we are not listening to what it has to say.

The third axis of health, soul span, is arguably the most important pillar of health. No matter how long you live, with whatever level of physical and cognitive ability, if your emotional well-being is poor, then your quality of life will be significantly diminished.

As Marcus Aurelius says, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts”.

Anxiety disorders affect almost 4% of the world's population, but this is not the anxiety I refer to. Those with a documented anxiety disorder need the structure and support of a professional clinical team. The anxiety I refer to is that which wakes you in the dead of night or burns slowly in the background of your day—a feeling we all have experienced.

This anxiety comes in many forms and has had many names over the centuries. Angst, neurosis and dread are some of the names we have given it, but regardless of its title, we all can relate to the cold grip it can take on our minds. And how we can suffer from its presence.

But what if anxiety was not something we needed to get rid of?

But instead, investigate what it might teach us about how we should be living our lives.

Maybe we need anxiety more than we think.

Fear versus Anxiety

Fear is the normal physiological response to a direct threat. Its resolution, therefore, involves the elimination of that direct threat. If a lion walks into the room you are in, fear is the natural response and leaving that room immediately to a position of safety is the way to eliminate your feelings of fear.

Anxiety is different.

Anxiety is a blend of the same sensations of fear without an obvious threat. Anxiety is vague and diffuse. Anxiety “attacks us from all sides at once, “ says Rollo May. Without an easily identifiable cause, the solution to anxiety is not apparent. We are stuck in the room with the lion. A lion we cannot see, but we can certainly feel. We desperately wish to leave, but no matter which door we choose the sensation of anxiety persists.

This is why anxiety is such a challenge.

Raden Saleh - Wounded Lion (c.1839)

Although we desperately wish to ‘flee the room of anxiety’, we cannot. With no escape option, our initial strategy is often to try and ignore it. But we do so at our peril. As Carl Jung notes, “A neurosis/[anxiety] … is not a disgrace… It is not a fatal disease, but it does grow worse to the degree that one is determined to ignore it”.

But without an identifiable cause, what are we to do?

Our next strategy is usually to try and subdue the feelings of dread. We use all the vices known to us; drugs, alcohol and even work. But none seem to provide any lasting relief. Our anxiety still lurks beneath the surface.

What to do?

First, we must shine a light on the lion hiding in the room.

Usually, with some reflection, or the assistance of a counsellor we can start to define why symptoms of anxiety might have arisen. Maybe it relates to an issue with work, a big future decision, or a challenge in a relationship. As much as possible, we need to define it. When we define it, we cut it down to size. It remains significant, but at least there are not a million other undefined problems to deal with.

A good question to ask yourself is:

'What am I not doing that I know I should be?’.

Posing that question sincerely will routinely elicit an answer. An answer you may not like. But stick with it. Ask if you are using any of the vices listed above (drugs, alcohol, work) as ways to avoid ‘doing what it is you know that you should do’.

The answer is usually yes.

We all generally know what it is we should do and are avoiding.

The next question you need to ask is:

“Is the lion real?’

A frequent concern in today’s society is feeling ‘not successful enough’, or not ‘having enough money’. But do you really want those things, or has society told you that you need them, but deep down, you know you don’t?

As the famous American author, Charles Buckowski wrote, “Who were you before the world told you who you should be?”.

Too often, we struggle under the expectations of a society that does not align with our values and worldview. When we let societal norms set our desires, we struggle to do what is necessary to achieve them. Because deep down we know we do not want them.

The first step is asking who you are and what you truly value and desire for yourself and your loved ones.

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are,” says Carl Jung.

Understanding who you truly are requires space and an absence of distractions—a rarity in today’s world.

But ask yourself what you really desire when walking alone in the woods or in the mountains. It’s rarely more followers on social media or a bigger house.

Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt, c1875

When you connect with your genuine desires in life and see more clearly ‘who you truly are’, the lion of anxiety often disappears, and you realise that the thing driving your anxiety was never real. An illusion was chasing you.

If, on reflection, you discover a way of being or something in your life that aligns with your true values that you should aim for but are avoiding, then the lion is real.

But at least you can now see the lion.

Anxiety can now become fear.

And that’s progress.

As Thomas Merton says, “What you fear is what you seek”.

Now you know what you really seek.

Now you know what you must do.

Don’t Wait. Act!

A common approach at this point is to try and ‘fix’ your anxiety first, and when it has resolved to, start then taking action.

This rarely works.

It is action and progress that reduces the symptoms of anxiety. It is not waiting for the anxiety to subside before you can act that is required, but action first. Action in the face of anxiety. This is what true courage is. If waiting for the fear to subside before acting was the case, then we wouldn’t call it ‘courage’.

“Only boldness can deliver from fear. And if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is somehow violated” Carl Jung. Symbols of Transformation.

It is through progress that we tame the lion of anxiety. Through action, we realise that we have the courage to move forward and embrace the uncertainty of the future.

Sometimes it is unclear what action to take first but what matters most is that you begin. Even with the smallest step. Because even with the smallest step, you have begun. And with this sense of progress, anxiety begins to fade.

The existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard describes anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom”. Now that we have the power to act, we must face the possibility that we could choose incorrectly. The sense of fear you feel when you stand on the edge of a cliff is not the fear that you might fall but the realisation that you could jump. It is a possibility that you could act out.

So how do you know you are making the right decision?

You don’t.

But in taking a step in ANY direction, you will realise you can make progress. The dizzying freedom of all the other options has now faded. And even if you step forward and realise you are off course, you now have enough momentum to change direction. Think of anxiety as the difficulty of trying to balance a bike without moving forward; almost impossible. But with momentum, even in the wrong direction, you can course correct to the right destination.

William Turner - Dort or Dordrecht- The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed 1818

Each and everyone one of us will experience anxiety in our lives.

Each and everyone one of us will likely use maladaptive mechanisms like alcohol or work to distract ourselves from that feeling of unease.

But each and every one of us has the potential to ‘become who we are’ and, by doing so, diminish the feelings of anxiety and dread that often come to haunt us.

The dizzying potential of freedom is real, but action is the solution.

Action aligned with your true values.

Maybe anxiety is our deepest selves calling out to us.

Telling us we are off course.

Maybe anxiety is our greatest teacher.

“Learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront... He therefore who has learned rightly to be anxious has learned the most important thing.”— Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread.

When You Are Ready Here Is How I Can Help You.

The Heart Health Formula Is Everything I Have Learned About Heart Disease Prevention Over The Last 20 Years About.

This is the formula for preventing heart disease and living longer.

Click on the button below to learn more.

Tell Me More

The Real Secret Of Why Blue Zones Have Exceptional Longevity

How to Define Exercise Zones for Optimal Workout Efficiency. The Es...

Five Simple Tests You Can Do At Home To See How Long You Will Live.


Prevent Heart Disease. Live Longer. 

Join 20K+ Others On My Free Weekly Email For Actionable Insights.