Can feelings as anxiety be a substitute for something we are too scared to encounter? For yoga teacher Frida Starvid anxiety had been a loyal companion for a long time. After hearing about a theory called Affect phobia she started digging deep into herself. What other feelings can hide there under our anxiety?
Anxiety seen as a substitute feeling
“Anguish, anguish is my heritage, the wound of my throat, the cry of my heart in the world…” The year is 1916, and the Swedish poet Per Lagerkvist, then 25, is ridden by existential angst (you might know Per – he recieved the Nobel Prize in Literature after 11 years of active membership in the Swedish Academy; another depressing story but in a different way.)
Almost a century later, I was 30 and also burdened by anxiety. During the previous years, I´d had moments in places where the light of living was overwhelming only in its absence. Sure, I had a good degree and a pretty decent CV. I was brave and free, had an exciting job and was travelling the world. But the flipside was that I felt emotionally detached. Close relationships were very challenging, and I often found myself lost; lacking some unspoken direction.
Then one day around Christmas of 2011 I overheard a conversation between my mother and her friend, and something caught my attention: “… in McCullough´s theory, anxiety is not seen as a real emotion or affect per se. Instead, anxiety seems to be a substitute feeling, produced in order to cover up or defend oneself from another emotion that one is too scared to encounter…” I looked up, contemplating what I´d just heard. My anxiety had been a loyal companion for a long time, and it defined my inner workings to a large degree. What my mum´s friend had said flipped a huge coin for me. It would just take some time and research before it finally dropped.
Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy
In short McCulloughs theory is about analysing psychological issues, proposing that most of their causes are related to conflicts about feelings, or affects. The theory, called affect phobia, was developed mainly by Leigh McCullough, Director of the Psychotherapy Research program at Harvard University. Through extensive clinical research, the method is well proven to work for a variety of psychological diagnoses, and sorts under a strand of therapy called STDP – Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy. From its name, you´ll gather that the durational factor is important – the goal is to get substantial improvement, the sooner the better. You work with concrete formulations of your issues, and the therapist plays an active role. There´s no beating around the bush, no silent nods. Essentially, it´s not much Freud and very little bullshit.
Avoidance of undesired feelings
Affect phobia – a fear of feelings - is explained by the fact that as small children, it´s our caretaker´s responsibility to mirror and validate our emotions. Their job is to help us understand what we´re feeling and guide us how to constructively act based on these emotions. Since no parents are flawless, however, most of us learned that some emotional expressions were less welcome than others. Perhaps you had a father who got very uncomfortable when you cried – you´d soon learn that showing sadness wouldn´t score you any attachment points; you´d probably swallow your tears and give him your best smile instead. Or perhaps you had an older sibling who acted scornful if you became overly excited about something – you will likely refrain from openly bursting with joy in the future and instead act indifferent. For small children, adaptation is a game of survival.
In this way, we establish a set of defences to help us avoid undesired feelings, and these patterns persist through adulthood. Interestingly, our defences can express themselves as thoughts (for example thoughts of self-contempt), behaviours (perhaps constant doing and achieving) or in the form of other emotions. In a typical example, someone who doesn´t dare to show grief covers up by becoming very angry. And anxiety belongs to this category, as a primordial catch-all shield.
Do you dare to really feel?
It all sounds pretty simple, but it´s decidedly complex. As the rigorous person I am, I went and bought a book – Treating Affect Phobia, a text book for psychotherapists by McCullough et.al – and started reading. After 50 pages I realized that I am indeed no therapist, but that I had to go and get myself one, now that I knew what I needed. And then, with the help of Leif Havnesköld (one of the most experienced affect therapists in Sweden, now sadly passed) I started untangling my inner life. There was stuff in there I had no idea existed, as most of my feelings – both negative and positive – had been buried under a heavy load of shame. And many of my defence responses were so automatized that my first step was to identify them and learn to hinder myself before they set in.
In the end, emotions are what makes us feel alive. We live in an era still heavily influenced by Descartian thought – I think, therefore I am – and when emotional openness is encouraged, such as in opinion-driven social media, we tend to forget that many feelings are not ”pure”, but rendered through a filter of personal experience. If we honestly don´t want to let our one-year-old selves rule our world, I hereby – joyfully and shamelessly – encourage everyone to do a bit of psychological digging.
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Frida Starvid f.d. Boström is a Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Rocket and Yin teacher (200+140 hr), educated in India, Sweden and Spain. She started off as an architect but after a burnout she decided to shift careers. Her first trip to an ashram in India in 2015 led to many more, and evoked her already existing curiosity about philosophy and meditation, as well as fun and physically challenging yoga. Frida gives regular classes and assists at yoga teacher educations in Sweden and abroad. Read more about Frida at her website or follow her at Instagram: @frida_bostrom