The Pleasures of our Anxiety

Written by Jori Sackin

My mind spends a lot of its time and energy trying to anticipate future. It does this through imaginative scenarios. If I’m thinking about an idea that I want to delve further into and I find myself alone, I might conjure up a person to have a conversation with, someone who I know well and can anticipate what they might say in response. In this way I can think through an idea as well as plan ahead for any counter arguments that hadn’t occurred to me so when I actually sit down with that person and have that conversation, I am better prepared.

This of course depends upon the accuracy of my mapping of that person. It is quite possible that the actual person is very different from the person that I imagine, and in that case, I am not so much preparing myself to talk with that person, but using my version of that person as a counterweight to the other imagined person in the conversation, which is of course, myself. In the conversation, both the imagined person and my imagined self are approximations of the actual, and will most likely behave differently given the actual context of the situation.

Despite the inaccuracy of these imaginings, this tool is quite useful, as it can help me think deeper about something, anticipate future, and get a clearer picture of self. It can be a tool that in comparison with the actual, can refine itself. If I have a more accurate mapping of myself, and of the other person in the conversation, then I can more accurately predict future conversations, and more accurately come up with the counter arguments. This seems like a tool that is worth the amount of time and energy that I invest. I can rationally justify my effort in spending a large amount of my time engaging in these kinds of creative imaginings.

However, there seems to be other uses for similar imaginative scenarios that have less to do with these goals, and that I also spend an enormous amount of time and energy on. For instance, I might imagine a scenario that I play over and over again that causes anxiety. I might think, “Sarah is unreliable,” and then I imagine a scenario in which Sarah will be unreliable. I imagine myself entrusting responsibility to Sarah, and then watching as she fails me. I experience the emotional reaction of what it feels like to be disappointed, frustrated and out of control. Throughout the day I continually replay imagined scenarios of Sarah demonstrating her unreliableness. The anxiety gradually grows, as does my fixation. I am gaining no new information. I am not looking deeper into her unreliableness. I am not becoming better at predicting Sarah’s future action because I am already conscious of it. Why then am I doing this?

If you think of anxiety as purely a negative emotion, and that negative emotions equate to pain, then it is peculiar for our minds to fixate upon something that causes pain. You would think that, like touching a hot stove, once my mind realizes that thinking about Sarah’s unreliableness causes pain, then I wouldn’t want to continually touch the stove again and again, or at least, I would only touch the stove if it was absolutely necessary, such as in the case when I am handing out important tasks to people, and I consciously remind myself not to give much responsibility to Sarah.

We are then left with two possibilities. Either we are sometimes attracted towards pain, that there is an attraction to putting our hand on the stove and getting burned, or our definition of negative emotions as pain is overly simplistic. I believe the notion of anxiety as pain, might be fundamentally wrong, or to say it another way, it is possible that there is a simultaneous pleasure we derive from it.

The first pleasure I would associate with anxiety is “the loss of self”. When someone does heroin, their self drops away. They no longer have to worry about the complications that goes along with maintaining self. Their workload has been greatly relieved and that is pleasurable. When we fixate on our anxiety, on our problems, we also lose self but in the opposite way. We focus so intensely on our complications, on the intricacies, that we lose self in the passion of our own anxiety. We are no longer our complex selves. We are our emotional anxiety, which is something much easier to understand.

This leads directly to the second pleasure which is the pleasure of being right, of accurately predicting future. There is a pleasure that comes with cognitive fluency. I can think, “Sarah is unreliable,” and then watch as she demonstrates her unreliability, and there will be a pleasure in being right about it, even though it might cause me harm, possibly enough pleasure, that it will make me want to continually replay the scenario I correctly predicted. There is also the attraction of being certain, about clearing away ambiguities. I might say, “I know for a fact that Sarah is unreliable.” This is the pleasure of being able to stake a concrete claim, of being on solid ground. The pleasure of being certain might be so enticing that I continually replay it over and over. Every time I replay it I think, “I am right” “I am certain” and each time a little pleasure is experienced.

The third pleasure has to do with meaning. Peak times of anxiety correlates with peak times in meaning. If something is anxiety ridden, then it must be perceived to be meaningful. The more meaning somethings holds, the more potential pain it will cause if it is destroyed, thus the more anxiety it causes in trying to maintain and protect it. If we find our significant other incredibly meaningful, then it would be appropriate to have extreme anxiety when they are in a car crash. A part of our meaning has been threatened and we respond with the appropriate reaction.

However, we also attach anxiety to other less meaningful things, such as organizing the silverware drawer. If you have a high degree of anxiety over how the silverware drawer should be arranged, then most likely, it must hold a great deal of meaning for you. Looking at the order of the drawer is pleasurable because either the silverware is a symbol for something deeper, or you derive a certain amount of meaning from its orderliness. Given the simple equation of anxiety = meaning = pleasure, your brain could possibly pick up on the relationship that, by creating anxiety, you are creating meaning and by creating meaning, you are creating pleasure, and since we are not often faced with life and death scenarios, we attach our anxiety to smaller things, that generate smaller meanings, which in turn generate smaller pleasures.

Thus, in the pain of our anxiety there are hidden, sometimes unconscious pleasures that we may not want to admit to, that can happen simultaneously to the conscious pain of anxiety. As the overbearing wave of negative emotion crashes over us, a small amount of pleasure slips in, and it is this little unconscious pleasure that we are attracted to.

It seems that the first step to dealing with this attraction is for us to become conscious of this fact. The second step is then to try and become aware of the difference between imaginative scenarios that predict future, that help us map clearer pictures of ourselves and others, and the scenarios that are fixations that create anxious pleasure by attaching to “loss of self”, “cognitive fluency” and “meaning”. So when we deal with people that are over-anxious or anxiety ridden, we should not entirely look at them as people that engage in self-harming pain inducing behaviors, but as people that are, at least partially, addicted to the pleasures of their own anxiety.