Anxiety: Silencing the background noise

“Today, like most days, you are anxious. It is there in the background, always present, sometimes more to the fore, sometimes less so, but never truly banished – at least not for longer than an evening.”

On another of my reading trails, I discovered some words that chimed a little bell of familiarity in me. And they might, I suspect, do the same for a few of you, too. So in this post, I’m going to lay down the (virtual) writer’s pen, and instead let this article do the talking.

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“The anxiety appears to be about some very particular things: the party where you won’t know many people, the complicated trip you have to take to some unfamiliar hotels, the direction of your career, the drilling outside, the email problem, your digestive system…

But considered from a broader perspective, the problem for us is larger, more damning and a great deal more fundamental. Beyond any specific thing we happen to be worrying about, looked at over time, a greater conclusion is inescapable: we simply are anxious, to our core, in the very basic make-up of our being.

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Though we may focus day-to-day on this or that particular worry creating static in our minds, what we are really up against is anxiety as a permanent feature of life, something irrevocable, existential, dogged – and responsible for ruining a dominant share of our brief time on earth.

Tortured by anxiety, we naturally fall prey to powerful fantasies about what might – finally – bring us calm. At certain points, especially in the north, the fantasies latch on to travel.

Here, at last, there would be peace: under the clear blue sky, on the island eleven-and-a-half hours from here, seven time zones away, with the warm water lapping at our feet, and with access to a seaside villa on pontoons, with Egyptian cotton sheets and a refreshing breeze. It is just a matter of holding on for a few more months – and parting with an extraordinary sum.

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Or perhaps we would be calm if the house could be as we really want it: with everything in its place, no more clutter, pristine walls, ample cupboards, stripped oak, limestone, recessed lighting and a bank of new appliances.

Or perhaps we will be calm when one day we reach the right place in the company, or the novel is sold, or the film is made or our shares are worth $5bn – and we can walk into a room of strangers and they will know at once.

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Or (and this one we keep a little more to ourselves), there might be calm if we had the right sort of person in our lives, someone who could properly understand us, a creature with whom it wouldn’t be so difficult, who would be kind and playfully sympathetic, who would have thoughtful, compassionate eyes and in whose arms we could lie in peace, almost like a child – though not quite…”

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The good news is that this little piece doesn’t end on quite such a cynical or despairing note. Catch my next post for the final, comforting instalment.

I’ve shared this extract from The Book of Life, an offshoot of Alain de Botton’s The School of Life – a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. The Book of Life aims to be the curation of the best and most helpful ideas in the area of emotional life, and contains more than a few useful chapters on relationships, work, culture – and the self.

Photography: Thomas Kunz



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