Freedom and anxiety

“Anxiety is a consequence of freedom, the result of a person’s encounter with a choice of different possibilities, since such possibilities include the unknown and the indefinite.”

Soren Kierkegaard

“Anxious is the life of the one who most of all yearns for prosperity.”

bion borysthenit

“People are not concerned with events in themselves, but with human ideas about them.”


Patients today often complain of morbid anxiety. In ICD-10, the corresponding diagnosis is referred to as “generalized anxiety disorder”. On the example of this disorder, one can trace how normal human experiences, while remaining unconscious, turn into psychiatric metaphors.

In order to make such a diagnosis, the psychiatrist must be sure that the patient lives a prosperous life, without experiencing any problems or troubles in the outside world. Only in this case, the anxiety receives the label “unreasonable”. The feeling of unreasonable anxiety should disturb the patient constantly, for at least three weeks. In addition, anxiety should be accompanied by a feeling of internal tension, irritability and autonomic symptoms: hand trembling, sweating, heart palpitations.

Anxiety and autonomic symptoms must be “inexplicable.” The reader already knows that “uncaused” or “unexplained” anxiety disorders in our country are by default classified as symptoms of schizophrenia and are “treated” with antipsychotic drugs. As in other cases, the logic of psychiatry excludes intrapsychic causes of anxiety. A person cannot be anxious because of the feeling of the meaninglessness of his own life or because of the unfulfillment of his intellectual and spiritual potential. From the point of view of psychiatry, only anxiety caused by material or personal trouble is explainable.

Evaluation of one’s own condition as painful depends on the focus of attention – on the degree of seriousness of one’s attitude towards oneself. As soon as a person assigns the label of painfulness to his natural feeling, the process of alienating a particular emotional experience from the usual flow of thoughts and feelings begins. Calling our experience painful, we are afraid of it and the process of dissociation already familiar to the reader begins. As a result, anxiety escalates like an avalanche, as our attention becomes more and more focused on the feeling that has been declared a disease.

For a psychologist, anxiety – either weakening or increasing – is an absolutely natural human experience. A person in waking consciousness always experiences some level of anxiety. Anxiety completely disappears only during sleep and meditation, as well as during intoxication or anesthesia. As Kierkegaard argued, anxiety is only the reverse side of freedom – retribution for the freedom of our consciousness.

The possibility of freedom is hidden in the uncertainty of our being – we do not know our future; we cannot accurately predict the consequences of our own decisions or actions. On the one hand, we do not have the opportunity to make an absolutely correct choice, and on the other hand, this is precisely what makes our choice free.

The more uncertain (that is, freer) human life, the higher the level of anxiety felt. The founder of the Frankfurt sociological school, Erich Fromm, argued that the main goal of the life of a Western European person is to escape from freedom. According to Fromm, a person himself seeks external control over himself – this reduces anxiety. For example, serving in the army in times of peace is the best way to avoid anxiety, since all the actions of a soldier are determined by the command. Totalitarian political regimes cause the patient consent of the citizens of the respective states, since a person does not need to make an independent political and economic choice – how a person needs to live determines the power, reducing the level of anxiety.

Hikikomori , henpecked husbands, and even young girls eager to get married reduce anxiety levels by giving up freedom. Friends, talking about marriage, say to a young girl: “You need to quickly decide” (lose your freedom). Girlfriends offer the girl a dependent relationship. Hikikomori prefer parental dependency. A henpecked man depends on his wife, and the citizens of a totalitarian society depend on their leader.

It can be argued that a person turns himself into an alcoholic, a drug addict, or unconsciously strives to become mentally ill in order to get rid of freedom. I’m an alcoholic; I am mentally ill; I’m an addict – all of these are ultimately ways to reduce anxiety by avoiding uncertainty. Self-definition – “I’m mentally ill” – is much better than “I’m a jerk, unable to cope with life.”

We always want to finally define ourselves, unambiguously answer the question of who we are and why we live. This question dramatically increases the level of anxiety and we turn on obsessive psychic defenses – we try to limit ourselves to reasonable definitions. Attempts to limit oneself to a profession, family, ideology or religious dogma most often turn out to be no more successful than the self-restraint of an alcoholic.

It is impossible to define oneself with the help of commandments and social norms received from outside – pride turns out to be an obstacle. The more a person tries to “normalize” himself, the more anxiety interferes with him, suggesting that he is doing something wrong.

As the experience of totalitarian societies shows, the individual cannot be completely dissolved in the public. The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev argued that the meaning of human life is creativity, understood as a repetition of the act of God – the creation of one’s own world.

To overcome anxiety, we must allow ourselves, no matter what, to create our own world.

By avoiding anxiety, we risk creating it, not with love, but with power. The artist does not know the fate of his painting. Creativity can be different – we live in similar apartments, but inside our homes are not alike. Pictures and apartments are not eternal. Other pictures will appear on the walls of the apartments and other people will sooner or later change the interior we have created. It is impossible to take creations too seriously, as something that surpasses life in its importance, more precisely, the creation of the world from God and from man requires the assumption of the freedom of the created.

“Taking too seriously” in this case means trying to control the future of the works. Such attempts only increase anxiety. As much as we would like to, we are not able to fully control the future of either our children or our creations. We can only create it – help, teach, advise – add strokes to the picture, but we cannot control the fate of the picture. Attempts to control the future lead to generalized anxiety, the most common cause of which is unreasonable anxiety for grown-up children.

But that’s not all. We need to learn how to create our own world without destroying the worlds created by other people. “We will destroy the whole world of violence, to the ground, and then …”, is the desire for power, completely devoid of love.

Our creativity is for other people, not against them; in the latter case, there will be no one to appreciate him, and then the consciousness of the creator will again be seized by “unreasonable” anxiety.

True self-love manifests itself in the creation of one’s own world, but this world cannot exist without the approval of the outer world. These are two sides of the same mental process. An attempt to use only one side – to create only for yourself or to imitate the tastes of the majority always turns out to be a way of narcissism.

A work intended exclusively for itself, as well as a work created solely for the sake of sale (based on mainstream tastes), will actually turn out to be a manifestation of an obsessive – phobic neurosis – a way of self-restraint.

In the first case, working at the table, the creator considers himself too great for his contemporaries. In fact, he is mortally afraid of someone else’s opinion that could hurt his pride. In the second, he limits himself with the help of self-definitions: “I am not an artist, but a craftsman, my only task is to earn money.”

A person who truly loves himself, at the same time makes an effort to love “his neighbor.” Love for the fruits of one’s creativity and love for other people for whose sake a person created something are two sides of one self-love.

It’s simple: if a person has built a house, avoided for various reasons by his wife and children, then this building, in fact, is a neurosis aimed at isolating himself from his relatives.

An artist who, like Van Gogh, paints pictures incomprehensible to his contemporaries, has every right to count on the love of his descendants, but he still creates his messages for the sake of their love, albeit distant and only possible, but still love.

We can say that the ability to be creative for the sake of others is true self-love. The words “for the sake of others” imply respect for other people, without depending on their opinion.

The whole problem of schizophrenia can be reduced to an attempt to create solely for its own sake. Dramatic psychic defense is a performance not intended for the viewer.

The statements “I am an alcoholic” or “I am a drug addict” are a small presentation for an interested viewer (a kind of “presentation”), justifying a person’s inability or unwillingness to use imagination to create their own world. Lack of imagination turns freedom inside out, leading to addiction. Alcoholics and drug addicts seek freedom from society, but with it they become dependent, not only on chemicals, but also on a number of social institutions. However, any attempt to completely free oneself from society and live solely for one’s own sake only leads to greater dependence on society.

Drinking patients say they use alcohol to reduce anxiety. For the same purpose, many take antidepressants and antipsychotics, and someone uses chemicals prohibited by law. All these are variants of egocentric chemical “creativity” – attempts to “reshape” one’s emotions and behavior according to ready-made chemical “patterns”. It quickly becomes clear that the patterns of “normal emotions” exist only in the patient’s imagination, and the abolition of alcohol, antipsychotics or drugs leads to a generalization of anxiety to the point of unbearability.

Not pride, but self-admiration needs primitive mental defenses. The most common of these is “black and white” or behavior often referred to as maximalism: “I am a maximalist – either everything or nothing suits me.”

The person using this defense wants others to recognize his leadership immediately and without any effort on his part. It’s impossible. Then such a person declares himself the most disgusting person in the world, a complete nonentity, not deserving any attention from others. Even a simplistic description of such behavior makes it obvious that the declarations of the “worst man on earth” are just an alternative device for narcissism. The main thing is that a person still feels like “the very best”, and black or white self-esteem is of no fundamental importance.

So it turns out the value (conditional benefit) for a large number of people of self-determination “I am a mentally ill person” or “I am a drug addict.”

If a person failed to become the best for at least a few significant people, then he can try to become the worst, choosing marginal social masks for this. Sometimes a person makes such a choice consciously: it is the choice of a criminal or eternally drunk “teachers of life” who meet on city streets.

More often than not, this choice is not recognized. A person who turns to a psychiatrist or psychologist with complaints of anxiety, instead of talking about his problems, receives a diagnosis of atypical (anxiety) depression or schizotypal disorder. The resulting “label” reduces anxiety, turning into an internal object of narcissism: the place of anxiety is taken by self-pity. Dissatisfaction with life that caused an increased level of anxiety, habitual patterns of behavior that led to failures find an excuse: “I’m right about everything! You don’t need to change anything! The reason for this is a disease about which I knew nothing.

It does not occur to a person that the cause of generalization of anxiety is always unjustified narcissism. In order for anxiety to become a problem, we need the already familiar irrational premise of thinking: “I must always and in everything succeed, if I do not succeed, then this is a disaster.”

Anxiety is a sign of the need to expand the functional capabilities of a person. When life confronts us with the problem of choice, the number of possible behaviors increases, along with freedom, the measure of uncertainty increases. In order to make a choice, we need to expand the horizons of our experience: gain the necessary knowledge, understand our own feelings, discover new areas of interest and creativity. Let me reiterate: we take psychoactive drugs instead of these apparently necessary efforts.

The conditional benefit of mental illness lies in the fact that a modern person very often does not understand where, in what direction to expend efforts – what kind of knowledge to obtain, how to understand one’s own feelings. It is necessary to understand such problems with each individual, however, there is a universal problem that leads to generalization of anxiety: modern mass culture has made an aimless existence the ideal of human life. We call this ideal “just living” or “easy living.”

Man is a teleological (goal-setting) being. The formulation (or clear presentation) of one’s goals, whether large or small, serves man in the same way that instinct serves animals. Animals rarely experience anxiety. They do not worry about their own future, having a fairly accurate idea of it. The experience that a person can call anxiety occurs in animals only during sudden and threatening changes in the environment. A person can reduce the level of anxiety only by planning the future, determining the direction of his immediate and delayed activities. The future of the individual is structured by the plan of his systematic efforts. If he does not understand this, an increase in the level of anxiety is inevitable.

Goals devoid of detail and structure, that is, a specific distribution of the intended actions on the time axis, we usually call childish or infantile.

“I want to be the best!”, “I want everyone to love me!”, “I want a lot of money!” – these are infantile desires that are quite acceptable for a normal human psyche and cause growing anxiety, since they are not structured by efforts. The same category of desires “to be like gods” also includes the desire for enlightenment, a state of consciousness that instantly makes a person special. Such desires played a decisive role in the appearance of the shameful diagnosis for medicine “metaphysical intoxication”.

I have called these desires valid because they can be easily detailed. For example, “I want to be the best historian (physicist, poet, etc.) in my city”, the desire is not just acceptable, but necessary, since it sets a goal for a person that automatically lowers his level of anxiety. “I want enlightenment… and I am ready to retire to a monastery for the next twenty years to observe asceticism,” a goal that commands respect.

Generalization of anxiety is determined by the impossibility of choosing actions that can lead to the fulfillment of an unfulfilled desire.

Unfortunately, it is precisely the formulation of the goals and objectives of human life that modern culture considers an obstacle on the way to an easy life, in which everything should happen by itself. People do not want to make plans because they are afraid of the impossibility of their execution. This fear gives rise to another form of mental protection, only at first glance capable of lowering the level of anxiety.

Aaron Beck and other leading cognitive-behavioral psychologists believe that people with generalized anxiety disorder are constantly based on irrational premises of thinking: ( Beck , 1997, 1991, 1976; Beck & Emery , 1985): “any incomprehensible situation is dangerous”; “situations or people are dangerous until proven otherwise”; “always assume the worst to avoid trouble.”

Most people believe that if you anticipate the failure of your actions or the collapse of your plans in advance, then the anxiety that comes with failure will be less.

This is not so, anxiety after a “planned” failure will be even more pronounced than with a sudden failure. This happens because a person who consciously expects failure, deep down hopes for success. Most of us expect failure and do not tell other people about our plans out of superstition. To this day, it seems to us that magical power can penetrate into our thoughts and words – the “evil eye”, destroying any human intentions, but it is not “alien force” that interferes with our plans, but the very need for goal-setting for the implementation of any activity. Fearing the evil eye, a person consciously thinks about failure, and as a result of the efforts of the imagination, it is failure that becomes the goal, launching chains of seemingly insignificant actions that eventually lead to what the person wanted – to failure.

Each of our prejudices (irrational beliefs) has its own antithesis.

Sometimes, to reduce anxiety, it is enough to formulate the statement itself and the antithesis to it, then saying it out loud or to yourself:

“My plans never materialize – I can always realize my plans.”


“All events are dangerous – all events are safe.”

Your unconscious knows a way out of such contradictions:

“My plans can be fully realized, or they can be partially, it all depends on the amount of effort expended”

“Events can be both dangerous and safe, and we can tell one from the other.”

There are very ancient, formulated by the Stoics of the second or third century BC, the basic principles of thinking that allow a person to overcome anxiety.

Lord, give me the peace of mind to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

This prayer, hung over the desk of US President John F. Kennedy, is most often attributed to the German theologian Carl Friedrich Oetinger (1702-1782). If this is so, then Etinger only paraphrased the main principle of the philosophy of Stoicism, known to us primarily thanks to the Roman thinkers of the first two centuries of our era: Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Epictetus and Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

“People are not worried about events in themselves, but about human ideas about them,” wrote Epictetus.

Indeed, what worries us most: the fact itself or our reaction to it?

Marcus Aurelius once wrote in his diary:

“Today I avoided anxiety. Or not, I dropped it because it was in me, in my own perception – not outside.”

According to the Stoic beliefs, we cannot change what is outside, but we can always change what is inside – our attitude to what is happening.

The ability to distinguish what we can control from what lies beyond our control was considered the main property of the Stoic philosopher, and the main principle of his life was to focus efforts exclusively on what he could change.

“If you can’t change your circumstances, change your attitude towards them.” Marcus Aurelius.

It was easy for him to say, he was still an emperor! readers may think.

In such phrases, a basic attribution error is found. The life of the emperor of ancient Rome was by no means easy. Finding ourselves in an unpleasant situation, we cease to be philosophers, justifying ourselves by the fact that someone else’s “objective” circumstances are much better than those in which we find ourselves.

In the time of Marcus Aurelius, the word “philosophy” did not mean a complex and “abstruse” system of reasoning for the layman, but what we mean today when we talk about psychological exercises or self-hypnosis. Philosophy teachers tried to discover principles of thinking and perception that would help their contemporaries reduce the level of anxiety and dissatisfaction with their fate.

Buddhism sought to save followers from suffering, the main of which can be called a too serious attitude to events taking place in reality. Buddhism is first and foremost a philosophy of life, requiring a special organization of thinking from its followers.

Learning to distinguish events that depend on a person from events that he cannot influence is difficult. You have to learn this all your life. According to the teacher Marcus Aurelius, a slave of Epictetus, only three circumstances do not depend on us in life – health, wealth and fame. Everything else can be changed.

I want the readers of this book to ponder for themselves Epictetus’ statement. Thinking like this alone can reduce anxiety, which is constantly raised by our self-admiration. Self-admiration is always not enough for our fame, wealth and health.

According to the Stoics, in order for a person to think in time – during events, and not after their completion, it is necessary to develop the habit of asking yourself questions in time.

What in a particular situation are circumstances beyond my control, and what is my emotional reaction to them?

What, in my experience, can I do now to make a difference?

Everyone can formulate such questions for himself, the main thing is to remember the formulations and write them down in your imagination. The habit of asking yourself these questions is a good way to overcome anxiety in situations with a high measure of tension and uncertainty.

event_note July 23, 2022

account_box Winona Tse MD

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *