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11. How can the human mind ward off anxiety?

One of the major contributions of the psychoanalytic school of thought from the last hundred years has been a detailed analysis of ways in which we deal with the discomfort of anxiety. Sometimes called defense mechanisms, these intrapsychic maneuvers serve to manage the tides of anxiety in our minds and bodies.

In Freud’s classic formulation, outlined in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, he details the way in which the body reacted to a perceived danger as being signal anxiety.

This reaction signaled the mind to engage in defense against the obnoxious feeling by seeking a solution. Freud focused on repression (the unconscious denial of an uncomfortable stimulus), while his daughter, Anna, detailed many of the defense mechanisms in her classic work, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.

She classified, for example, such mechanisms as isolation of feeling (distancing oneself from the painful feelings of a story), displacement (putting the blame onto something or someone outside of oneself, seen in kicking a dog or fearing a tunnel), or somatization (converting what would otherwise be overwhelming conscious feelings into bodily experiences).

Today, often categorized on a spectrum from less to more mature in nature, the work of George Vaillant in Adaptation to Life has helped us to understand that some defensive styles work much better than others in dealing with anxiety.

More primitive styles include the use of projection and splitting (dividing the world into black and white, seeing someone or oneself as all good or all bad, or attributing one’s own badness to those around him), while more successful styles involve the use of sublimation, altruism, or humor (using one’s own history of trauma to better society or to make people laugh). Vaillant’s work suggests that in any given lifetime, a certain amount of calamity will invariably occur. Based on our own defensive styles, he suggests that it is not what happens to us in our lifetime that matters as much as how we choose to deal with it.

He underscores one of the hallmarks of any good therapy for anxiety: helping the patient to see that making the lemon into lemonade or finding a way to see the glass as half full is a choice that remains in our control. While anxiety may be inevitable and desirable for survival, using it to our advantage maximally will help us to function more highly.

Terms:

Defense mechanism - a method of preventing harmful emotions from being felt.

Denial - a particular defense mechanism that involves a refusal to believe that something is true.

Ego - one of three theoretical parts of the mind, first established by Sigmund Freud, that involves a person’s ability to interact with reality, regulate mood, and participate in normal daily interactions.

Somatization - a process by which a person expresses emotional discomfort, most commonly anxiety, in the form of somatic, or bodily, symptoms.

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