This book asks us to reexamine anxiety…
by Kirk J. Schneider, PhD
University Professors Press, 2023; 170 pages
Reviewed by Awais Aftab, MD
In Life-Enhancing Anxiety, Kirk J. Schneider, PhD—a prominent psychologist and a leading spokesperson for contemporary existential-humanistic psychology—seeks to overturn our collective understanding of anxiety. According to Schneider, even though the contemporary world is overwhelmed with negative affect, we do not need less anxiety; we need more anxiety of a certain variety in order to live our best lives. The particular kind of anxiety we need is termed as life-enhancing anxiety, and is contrasted with its opposite, life-destroying anxiety.
“What specifically do I mean by life-enhancing anxiety? I mean anxiety that enables us to live with and make the best of the depth and mystery of existence,” Schneider writes. Through a compilation of both original and previously published essays, the book examines this proposal and explores how anxiety is necessary for us to achieve a state of passionate engagement, ethical attunement, and creative enrichment.
Schneider’s understanding of anxiety is in stark contrast to our contemporary attitudes. Instead of relying on the default strategy of avoiding and suppressing anxiety, Schneider makes the case that life-enhancing anxiety is a vital catalyst for embracing the profound depths and mysteries of existence. Our relationship with anxiety stands in for something deeper and existential. Are we willing to immerse ourselves fully in the challenges and uncertainties of life to discover the sense of awe that fuels creativity? Throughout the book, Schneider elaborates on this idea, showing its relevance to clinical work, arts and humanities, spirituality and religion, and societal and political challenges.
Schneider sees himself as working within the existential tradition and frequently acknowledges his intellectual debt to Rollo May and his classic 1950 work, The Meaning of Anxiety. In many ways, Schneider is trying to do what May did for his generation. May offered a distinction between anxiety characterized by neurotic distortion of reality and anxiety that allows for creative transformation of reality, and this distinction is also at the heart of Schneider’s book. Existential freedom and anxiety are unavoidably and inseparably linked. One cannot exist without the other.
The life-enhancing character of anxiety is not something fixed or inbuilt; it emerges from a particular process of engagement. Schneider explains: “… the state of arousal generated by experiences of difference. We call that arousal anxiety, and anxiety can only become “life-enhancing” if we can bolster our ability to assimilate and accommodate it.” Life-enhancing anxiety, therefore, is not something to be passively discovered, either in our ordinary lives or in the clinic, but something to be actively created.
Schneider is careful to acknowledge that anxiety as a clinical problem is not a trifling matter. It is often debilitating, paralyzing, and requires treatment. He also does not dismiss the value of medications or psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and views them as essential clinical tools to be utilized appropriately. Schneider’s fundamental goal is that he does not want us to understand anxiety as a phenomenon restricted to the single dimension of discomfort and pathology. Schneider wants us to approach anxiety—even in anxiety disorders—as multidimensional, as possessing elements of excitement and wonder which need to be recovered even as we seek to alleviate it.
Perhaps the most memorable sections of the book are those where Schneider shares his personal experience with anxiety and how his anxiety was transformed during the course of psychotherapy. Schneider’s struggles began after the traumatic loss of his younger brother at the age of 2 and a half. This led his family to take him for therapy with a child psychoanalyst when he was 6 years old. Subsequently at age 22, Schneider experienced a frightening encounter with anxiety that threatened to shake his very grip on reality:
“I recall some terrifying moments. For many days and weeks, I was beset by panic and anxiety. It seemed as if the slightest association to feeling helpless or being far from home and my girlfriend, or thinking I might be psychotic would set off a racing heart, physical shaking, and relentless feelings of doom. I also experienced perceptual distortions. For example, I would watch one of my professors speak but only hear every individual word he was saying, not the gist or basic idea he was conveying. This started to happen with other professors and even students, which gave me a growing sense of unraveling that just added to my anguish.
Thus was my initiation into the throes of panic and anxiety. I could easily have been diagnosed with an “anxiety disorder” accompanied by features of panic and distorted perceptions, but such a diagnosis would hardly illuminate what I was grappling with. This was a coming-of-age battle and a deep gnawing reactivation of “unfinished business” stemming from childhood fears. My therapist–analyst, Ann G., recognized the complexity of my malady. She conveyed a sense of confidence that I was going through a kind of “dark night of the soul,” and that there was more, so much more, that I could discover from this time. Just this perspective alone was helpful to me.” (p 26-27)
This psychological work enabled Schneider to find forms of fulfillment in life that he could not have imagined before:
“… I learned something else that has bolstered me for over 40 years: how to be bodily present, even in the most dire moments of vulnerability. With this hard-won discovery, I have been able to pursue romantic relationships that I hardly knew were possible at the time of my breakdown. Foremost among these was what turned out to be a 40-year relationship with my wife, Jurate.” (p 27)
Schneider describes how he gradually transitioned from a state of debilitating withdrawal to one characterized by curiosity, awe, and a courageous engagement with life. He reflects that today his treatment would likely have been dominated by medications and short-term symptom-focused treatments which would have fallen well-short of offering the existential engagement that he needed.
“… in my experience, if that change is essentially biological or intellectual or behavioral, it is not as likely to endure. On the other hand, if the change is holistic, involving one’s whole bodily being, it is likely to be life altering and profoundly ingrained.” (p 28)
The pervasive tendencies of modern society to eradicate anxiety goes beyond clinical interventions. We are surrounded by endless opportunities for distraction, from all the legal and illicit substances we consume to all forms of device-mediated communications: “I have the creeping feeling that we are entering a brave new age where statistical and mechanical manipulation is replacing personal discovery and risk.” (p 33)
Schneider wants us to rediscover the richness of face-to-face relationships, the immersive contact with nature, and our unfiltered capacity to genuinely experience the world. The advice he has to offer his readers is simple, but reflects this accumulated wisdom: take the time to reflect and to be present, develop a capacity to slow down, develop a capacity to savor the moment, cultivate a practice of meditation, and cultivate an openness to the mystery of life, etc. That such goals are worthwhile is likely evident to most, but what Schneider wants us to appreciate is that none of it is possible without a courageous and creative engagement with anxiety.
“Not since the warnings of such existential visionaries as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Tillich, or their successors Rank, May, Becker, Laing, and Foucault have we needed more desperately to come to grips with anxiety. For these thinkers, and in my own very personal experience, anxiety is assuredly two-edged. It is both an impediment to and potentially a signal of human flourishing; and its viability now is pivotal. Why? Because, again, unlike any other time in history we are in a position to virtually eradicate anxiety.” (p 5)
In conclusion, Life Enhancing Anxiety is a thought-provoking book that forces us to reexamine our assumptions about the nature of anxiety and its relationship to psychological flourishing, and is a valuable work for clinicians and patients alike.
Dr Aftab is a psychiatrist in Cleveland, Ohio, and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University. He is a member of the editorial board of Psychiatric Times, led the interview series “Conversations in Critical Psychiatry,” and blogs about conceptual and scientific issues in psychiatry at Psychiatry at the Margins.