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  • The Unconscious Anxiety in the Background: A Very 2023 Issue

    It might seem odd to think about partially or fully unconscious anxiety in the background of our lives and minds, but it’s definitely a real thing.

    Anxiety in the Background (PHOTO: Stock Photo Secrets)

    Not surprisingly, we tend to think of anxiety as something conscious—something of which we’re just fully aware. Yet the fact is that we can have anxiety in the background of our psyches. It may be powerfully influencing us, and yet we may be partially or fully unaware of it. This seems counterintuitive! How can we have anxiety, and not know that it’s there? Nonetheless, our experience of the last three years has shown us in spades how anxiety powerfully affects us, even if we’re not aware of its presence.

    Our experience in those years since the beginning of the pandemic is very instructive with respect to anxiety in the background. We need only think of some of the examples we see in public spaces to illustrate the ways in which people are carrying unconscious or semi-conscious anxiety. These days, if you sit in your local Tim Horton’s, Starbucks or other coffee place, it probably won’t take long to see several instances of people going off on the staff behind the counter, sometimes for the most irrational things. Not so long ago, it wasn’t like this. Public space has become much less courteous and people have become much more self protective.

    As Globe and Mail writer Marcus Gee observes, since the beginning of the pandemic, peoples’ anxiety seems to be much more intense, and spills over in public places:

    Cars and motorcycle race and weave around the streets of many cities, filling the night with the scream of their engines. Clashes among people over parking or driving seem angrier and more common. You took my spot! You cut me off!

    Marcus Gee, Globe and Mail, Saturday, February 11/23

    This trend in our public life, and the way we treat each other is deeply concerning. Hopefully our leaders and proactive individuals in our communities are going to take substantive steps to reverse this trend. However, I bring it up here primarily to point to another important reality that we all really need to notice. We are all subject to the spirit of the times. We all tend to carry our own background anxiety, and it can be very important for us to become aware of it, and how it affects us.

    Becoming Aware of Our Anxiety in the Background

    Unconscious anxiety in the background can have an enormous affect upon us. Certainly it’s true, as Freud asserted, that people with anxiety can live in a state of anxious expectation. Yet, even if you’re not aware of having social anxiety, or anxiety about driving, financial anxiety or any of the other big anxiety provokers, anxiety can still have a very big impact on your life.

    Sometimes, we can experience anxiety as an ever-present, hard-to-pin-down sense of nervousness, that is a kind of stream that runs throughout your day. Or you may find yourself restless, tense, jumpy—even irritable at other people. Perhaps you find yourself unable to relax, or only able to relax if you distract yourself, perhaps through your cell phone or gaming online.

    Anxiety? What Anxiety?

    We tend to think of anxiety as a condition that involves a lot of conscious worrying. Something that involves clearly conscious thoughts about what could go wrong, that keep recurring. Viewed from that perspective, it may be easy to tell ourselves, “I don’t have any anxiety!” Yet, that may not be the entire story.

    Anxiety in the background may show up in any of the following ways:

    • I’m having trouble paying attention, and I’m disorganized;
    • I have “brain fog” and/or trouble making decisions;
    • I get overwhelmed, and it shows up as frustrated, angry or tearful outbursts;
    • I have intrusive thoughts, or the same thoughts keep occurring over and over;
    • I struggle with perfectionism, or the need to get everything just right;
    • I feel like I always have to prepare for the worst; or,
    • I experience physical pains, insomnia, shortness of breath, or other physical manifestations of anxiety.

    We may not have consciously anxious thoughts, and yet our anxiety may be having a substantial effect on our lives. Moreover, this anxiety may have a substantial unconscious dimension. It may be very important to become as conscious as we can of this anxiety in the background.

    Our Background Anxiety Has Something to Give Us

    If we find a way to pay attention, the anxiety in the background of our psyche has the potential to reveal a great deal about what we’re currently dealing with in our lives. It can show us a lot about our vulnerabilities and wounds, and also about our deepest needs and aspirations. We live in a time when unconscious anxiety is very widespread, and has deep effects on our collective social life.

    A supportive and insightful Jungian analyst or /a-midlife-transition can be of great assistance as we seek to understand our anxiety, and the wounds, aspirations and deep yearnings that underlie it. As we work on our anxiety in the background, the result can often be a greater level of compassion for ourselves, a greater understanding of ourselves, and a greater sense of what is trying to emerge in our lives. How does your anxiety in the background manifest? What might it be indicating about what is of deep importance in your life?

    Wishing you every good thing on your personal journey,

    © 2023 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario

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