The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self by Curtis Chang

The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self cover imageSummary: Anxiety is part of how we were created.

Like everyone (and in keeping with how anxiety is talked about in the book), I have anxiety. I hate conflict. I do everything I can to avoid situations where I might be in conflict, especially conflict with people close to me. Curtis Chang suggests that anxiety is part of how we were created. We should have anxiety because we care. Part of how care for the world and those around us expresses itself is being anxious over the fear of loss. No anxiety at all would not show that we have great control over our emotions, but instead, it would show that we may not have appropriate care or love.

“Love: We suffer anxiety because we are vulnerable to losing what we most love. This further explains why anxiety is unavoidable for anyone who is truly human. To be free of anxiety is to be free of any love (which is capable of being lost), which in turn would mean becoming inhuman.”

Chang uses formulas to illustrate how he wants to talk about anxiety. “Anxiety = Loss tells us that anxiety is generated by loss or, more specifically, by our fear of loss. Every anxiety is the fear of some future loss.” Once that basic idea is explained, he expands on it to show how anxiety can be made worse: “Anxiety = Loss x Avoidance.” Fear of loss is something that we all have. And he also identifies that a certain level of anxiety is also inevitable. But the part that moves us from normal anxiety to dysfunctional anxiety is our avoidance. It is common to speak about fight or flight (and sometimes fawn) as responses to stimuli. Chang also speaks about them as tools of avoidance.

“CEOs tend to have high-functioning anxiety, like I do. Also, like me, they tend to default to fight mode. They often plunge forward with their own versions of firing off long emails to their staff at three in the morning. Too often, their colleagues don’t push back. Team members don’t realize their leader’s behavior is anxiety-driven. Instead, they feel confused, insecure, guilty, and blamed. Anxiety spreads like a contagion throughout the entire organization.”

Others (like me) tend to avoid our anxiety by pretending anxiety doesn’t exist or by avoiding situations where it might pop up. One of the book’s more helpful sections was the discussion about how different responses to anxiety impact relationships. Chang suggested that he tends to default to a fight response, and his wife tends to default to a flight response and that those different responses are interpreted by the other and a lack of care about their anxiety.

I will not talk about it more than mention it, but my daughter has been struggling with anxiety for a while. Her doctor suggested that we medicate in addition to counseling because of her age; she was establishing brain patterns in response to anxiety. So for about six months, she was on an anti-anxiety medication. Eventually, she felt like she wanted to come off because she had been able to work with her counselor to build more healthy responses to anxiety. She is still anxious (as all of us are), but she is responding to anxiety in a more healthy way. She may return to anti-anxiety meds in the future, but she has stopped for now and is reducing the frequency of her counseling appointments.

Chang speaks about this type of thing in the book:

“Avoidance habits, like any addiction, become ingrained in our minds. Neuroscience has shown actual physical ingraining happens constantly in our brains. Any action establishes a neural pathway in our brain; repeated actions deepen that pathway. Addictions are like destructive pathways where the grooves have gotten etched deeply over time, and we become mired in those ruts…A key to breaking any addiction is stopping that etching process as much as we can and replacing it with new actions that lay alternative—and healthier—neural pathways. This “stop and replace” work rarely happens suddenly, which is why the practical goal is to decrease (versus immediately eliminate) avoidance habits over time.”

This is an overtly Christian book. He deals with Paul’s passage about anxiety (do not be anxious) and, I think, most helpfully, the relationship between anxiety and sin:

“Let’s clarify one more time the relationship between anxiety and sin. Anxiety itself is not sin. It is an inevitable part of what it means to be humans living in the Now and Not Yet. And most avoidance habits—as dysfunctional as they are—are more accurately understood as “bad habits” than as outright sin. However, it is possible in some cases that the sin of idolatry can be lurking underneath anxious thoughts. This is precisely why the author of Psalm 139 asks God to “search my anxious thoughts” in order to ascertain if there is “any idolatrous way in me” (CEB).”

But even more significantly, the last couple of chapters about a long-term approach to anxiety include a discussion about eschatology, the theological idea of Christ’s return, and eternity. This is helpful because it focuses not on eschatology as avoidance of problems today but dealing with them today because we can be confident in Christ eventually making all things right. So I am supportive of the overall focus and ton of the book.

But I have a couple of concerns, more with simplistic readings of the book rather than the book as a whole. When we think about the potential of loss, that loss is real. We will all die. All of our friends and family will also die. Some may die in old age without any significant pain or sickness. But others may die in tragedy and heartbreak. If we look at history and the world today, there is real tragedy, and being a Christian does not keep us from tragedy. We can see horrible loss and pain in the lives of many Christians throughout history. I do not think that Chang avoids this problem; he brings it up several times, but I do think there is a way to read this book that ignores how he handles this and still relies on Christ to make everything right in the here and now. We are not promised that everything will be made right here and now.

I was listening to a podcast with Hannah Anderson yesterday discussing her book on humility. During the podcast, she talks about how we can idealize rural communities and how many rural communities share and care for one another. Anderson rightly says that many idealize without understanding that the reason behind that communal care is communal poverty. Without need, we do not seek out or give help. Curtis Chang says, “…one likely causal factor behind the long-term increase of anxiety in our society is the extent to which mental labor has replaced physical labor in the workforce.” He is making the point that we should do physical labor to engage our brains to process our anxiety. But this relates to Anderson’s point because we can’t benefit from many things we idealize without doing the other parts we do not idealize. Physical labor can help us process anxiety, but hard work also wears on our bodies and, over time, can cause our bodies to fail.

I think this is currently the book I would most recommend for those that are anxious, but it is not a silver bullet that will solve all of our problems around anxiety.

You can see my highlights and comments here.

The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self by Curtis Chang Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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