The ‘Futile Task’ of Fighting Anxiety

Futile task

There are a number of different ways of explaining anxiety. One way is to say that anxiety is what happens when we try to solve a problem that can’t be solved. This is a very simple approach to anxiety, and it is also very helpful. Problems, we might say, come in two varieties: the type that can be solved, and the type that cannot. If we can tell which is which, then we will not make the mistake of trying to fix problems that cannot be fixed, and so we will not create anxiety. In his book The Power of Compassion the Dalai Lama quotes the Indian philosopher Shantideva as saying that there are two types of difficulty: the type that we can do something about, and the type that we cannot do anything about. In the first case there is no need to worry, and in the second case there is no point!


What Shantideva says is clearly true, but in order to benefit from this insight we need to be able to see clearly when a struggle is impossible to win, and when it is not, and in order to see this we need to have a bit of perspective on the matter. However, when we worry, we automatically lose perspective, and when we lose perspective, we are much more likely to worry, and so what we have here is vicious circle. If only I could see how there is no point in worrying, then I wouldn’t worry, but if I could see that then I wouldn’t be worrying in the first place…


Here we have our finger on the knot that makes anxiety the thorny problem that it is. Suppose I set you a task that is clearly impossible. Suppose I ask you to build a tower twenty meters high out of a child’s building blocks. Pretty soon you work out that after a certain number of blocks the whole tower gets unstable and no more blocks can be added. As soon as you see this, you stop trying to do it. Why continue? There is no point in trying to do it since it simply can’t be done! In anxiety, however, we set ourselves an impossible task, and when we fail to solve the task we don’t give it up, we just keep trying harder and harder, and because we are so very absorbed in trying to solve the problem, we lose the perspective that we would have needed to see that the problem is insoluble. When we put it like this we can see that this is the doorway into a huge amount of suffering, with no chance of ‘back-tracking’ and getting out of it again. The only way we could become free from the suffering of anxiety would be to see that the problem [1] Can’t be solved and [2] Doesn’t actually need to be solved but we just don’t have the perspective to see this. If we did have the perspective, then we wouldn’t be anxious!


So what exactly is the ‘impossible task’ in anxiety? Before we answer this, we will take a little detour and discuss a closely related impossible task – the impossible task of ‘compulsive checking’. Everyone has experienced the urge to check at some time or other. A classic example is the urge to check and recheck to see if I have locked the front door properly. What happens is that I am walking away from the house when it occurs to me that I am not 100% sure that I locked the door. So I go back and check it. A minute later I become uncertain again – am I totally sure that I locked it? The answer is of course that I am not totally sure. It is impossible to be totally sure. After all, I might think that I remember turning the key in the lock, but perhaps I am only remembering my intention to turn the key in the lock? Perhaps the mental image I have of myself locking the door is only my mind playing a trick on me? At this point it becomes clear what the impossible task is here – it is impossible ever to be 100% sure of anything and so if I insist upon being 100% sure I lock myself into a never-ending struggle, a struggle I can never win.


The situation is very similar in anxiety, and so now that we have understood the impossible task of compulsive checking it is not hard to understand the impossible task of anxiety. The impossible task which we unthinkingly take on in anxiety is the task of being 100% in control. In this case the emphasis is not so much on ‘checking’ but on eradicating risk. The reason this is impossible is because life can never be 100% risk free. Risk can never be 100% eradicated – it is a scientific fact that a certain degree of uncertainty (or unpredictability) is always going to be there, no matter how much effort we put into trying to iron it out. Therefore, as we have already said, eradicating uncertainty (in the form of risk) is an endless task – it just goes on and on eating up all my time and all my attention and all my energy, to absolutely no avail. This is like feeding a monster that never gets full up. In fact, quite the opposite is true because the more I feed the monster of anxiety by trying to satisfy it the bigger and stronger it gets and the more ‘food’ it demands. It grows and grows, and the more it grows the hungrier it gets! In OCD the more I check the more I feed the monster, and in anxiety the more I try to ‘find safety’ (i.e. avoid) the more I feed the monster. It’s the easiest thing to do, but it creates untold problems for the future.


What is basically happening in anxiety is that I am being driven by an urge (or compulsion) to make sure that the ‘bad thing’ doesn’t happen – whatever that might be. Sometimes this ‘bad thing’ is known to us – it might be that I think I am going to have a heart attack or that I think I am going to make a holy show of myself in a public situation.  Sometimes we may only be dimly aware of some nameless but very threatening eventuality, and it is also possible that we may not have any clue at all what is that we are being threatened with. Whichever it is, the result is the same – I find myself fighting to eradicate the risk that the bad thing will happen. I am fighting against the unwanted possibility either way.


My idea is that I can cure anxiety by reducing the chances that the feared eventuality will come to pass, but of course this isn’t curing anxiety at all. Fighting to eradicate risk is ‘obeying the urge of anxiety’ and when I go down this road I ensure that I will become a ‘slave to fear’, chased by a monster I dare not look in the eye, a monster that gets bigger and fiercer every day. But if obeying the urge to control (or the urge to avoid, which is the same thing) is a false cure for anxiety, what is the real cure? The answer is quite simple and quite straightforward – the cure is to allow the uncomfortable feeling of being ‘unsafe’ (or ‘at risk’) to be there, without automatically obeying the compulsion to get away from this feeling. We learn to get better at tolerating uncertainty, in other words – however long it might take to do this.


Awareness of risk is a form of pain, and it is our profound unwillingness to feel this particular type of pain that makes us such willing slaves to the urge to control (or the urge to avoid). In actual fact, there is a sort of a rule (or principle) which says that if I flee from psychological pain, I am only making things worse for myself because the pain of having to live a ‘life of avoiding’ is far worse that the pain of facing what we are afraid of, and letting it do its worst. We all know this very well indeed on some level or other, but when it comes down to it we will almost always go down the road of avoiding (or trying to avoid) just so we can escape the fear that we’re running from for just a bit longer…


To say that the cure for anxiety is just to ‘face our fears’ (as people always – and quite rightly – say) sounds very straightforward. It isn’t so straightforward, though. If it were, anxiety wouldn’t be the problem that it is. The problem is that we run slap-bang into another – less obvious – impossibility here, and that is the impossibility of controlling-myself-so-that-I-will-face-fear. This is simply not something that can be done as a result of a ‘rational decision’. ‘Facing our fears’ can never come about as a result of a calculated decision or strategy – it’s not a ‘head-thing’, so to speak. My problem is precisely that I am always trying to control, and so how on earth is more controlling going to help me if it was the controlling that was the problem in the first place?


Control is all about eradicating risk – I control in order to eradicate the possibility of stuff happening that I don’t want to happen, I control in order to eradicate the risk of ‘the bad thing’ happening. And so straight away here I am back to square one again. The only thing that has happened is that the ‘bad thing’ has changed its face. Beforehand, the ‘bad thing’ was that something or other would happen (which was the original anxiety). Now, the ‘bad thing’ is that I will not be able to face the fear. In other words, beforehand I was anxious, and now I am anxious about being anxious, I am anxious that I might not be able to eradicate my anxiety. Therefore, I am no better off at all!


There is an answer though. We don’t have to get caught up on the ‘snag’, which is when we set ourselves the impossible task of ‘fighting anxiety’. The key is the word ‘fighting’, which is just another way of saying ‘controlling’. The answer has nothing to do with controlling – it has to do with insight. The insight that frees us is the insight that we cannot escape our predicament by controlling, because it is controlling which creates the predicament. In other words, the insight in question has to do with understanding clearly that we are engaged in an ‘impossible task’. Once we see for ourselves that the task we have set ourselves is totally and utterly impossible, something changes in us and the blind force of unconsciousness at the heart of the anxiety is weakened. The rational mind doesn’t see this because the rational mind can’t – all rationality understands is controlling – but the point here is that there is more to us than this ‘rational mind’ we place so much stock in.


Although insight is of crucial importance in becoming free from anxiety, it is not enough on its own. It is a fact that the habit of anxious thinking does not disappear in a puff of smoke the moment I gain insight into the ‘impossible task’. What happens is that I see myself going through the same old motions of trying to make things right, only this time I have a sense of the futility of my efforts. When I discover that I am incapable of resisting the urge to continue endlessly enacting the pattern of anxious thinking, even though I know it is counterproductive, then this is pure frustration. The word ‘frustration’ doesn’t begin to do justice to what I am going through in fact, but we can characterise it generally as ‘mental pain’.


Now, we said earlier that the attempt to escape or avoid psychological pain is invariably at the root of all neurotic states of mind, including anxiety. However, when I am experiencing the pain of seeing myself endlessly enacting anxious behaviour (even though I know it is making my situation worse rather than helping me) then obviously I am not avoiding this psychological pain! Therefore, this type of frustration must be ‘non-neurotic’ or ‘mentally healthy’. It is non-neurotic because it is not about avoiding pain. We will call it – for reasons that will soon become apparent – conscious frustration (or conscious suffering). Normally, we successfully avoid seeing the futility of the anxiety-behaviour by ‘buying into what the rational mind is telling us) and so we don’t see that the task is impossible. Because we don’t see that what we’re doing is essentially futile we don’t experience ‘conscious frustration’. Instead, what we get involved in can be called unconscious suffering, which is a very different kettle of fish.


Unconscious suffering can continue indefinitely because we keep getting ‘led on’ by the promise of an effective solution, whereas in reality there is zero chance of any solution (i.e. any ‘quick fix’) working. Anxiety can’t be solved by any logical decision that we make, by any problem-solving strategy that we embark on. We keep enacting the futile pattern however because of the carrot which is dangling in front of our nose, the carrot in question being the (impossible!) goal of 100% risk elimination. We can’t ever achieve this goal (for reasons that we have already given) and for this reason it might be thought that we would get frustrated. And of course we do to some extent, but at the same time we never experience the full impact of the frustration because we never stop believing that a solution is (perhaps) just around the corner.


Anxious (or neurotic) patterns of behaviour are, therefore, effective ways of avoiding the mental pain of conscious frustration, which is simply ‘awareness of the truth of the situation’ (or ‘awareness of reality’). Instead of seeing what the real problem is, which our automatic, repetitive is and counterproductive activity pattern, we distract ourselves by chasing the fantasy goal of 100% control, 100% risk-reduction. We keep on trying to solve the problem because we don’t want to allow ourselves to see that we can’t.


What we are saying here is that it is the perception of automatic behaviour (and the conscious pain that goes with this perception) that is the cure for automatic behaviour. I might feel that I am getting nowhere, but it is this very frustration which is necessary in order for me to lose faith in the power and efficacy of my automatic thinking and automatic behaviour. In time, a radical reorientation takes place and instead of having an unquestioning belief in the necessity to eliminate all risk in life (which means relying on methods, strategies, skills, and so on), I develop faith (or trust) in my capacity to grow through taking risks.


There are no methods or strategies or skills for taking risks, any more than there are for living life! Life isn’t a problem to be fixed, anymore than anxiety is – it isn’t a question of ‘how do I do it?’ or ‘what do I do about it? or ‘what’s the correct solution?’ but rather it’s a matter of learning to trust in the process even though there isn’t an authenticated and approved method for coping, even though we don’t know what to do, even though we don’t know where it is taking us…