Emotional Anguish: The Paralyzing Overwhelming Fear

July 29, 2018

Emotional anguish is like a whirlpool that traps everything. It imprisons us from within and fills us with fear, anxiety, restlessness, and even overwhelming sadness. It’s a kaleidoscope of negative, crippling emotions.

Byung-Chui Han, a well-known South Korean philosopher and expert in cultural studies, defines our world today as “the burnout society”. If there’s something we all have in common, it’s anxiety and emotional anguish. For Han, the cause of all of this lies in our culture of performance, where we’re trying to orient our children to work towards success in all aspects of their existence.

Therefore, we experience pressure from society to stand out and achieve success. In addition, we live in a culture of multi-tasking that’s introduced to us at an early age. One has to do many things simultaneously and in a short period of time. It’s the law of the jungle where not everyone can survive or integrate effectively, where it’s common to be trapped in the “angst”, a German term that means everything that is narrow, harsh, and causes suffering.

“Anxiety, like any other mental disorder that make a person suffer sadness and guilt, constitutes a normative struggle in an essentially human order.”

-Mario Benedetti-

a woman with emotional anguish

Emotional anguish: What’s wrong with me?

When we speak of emotional anguish, the same issue always arises. Is anguish the same thing as anxiety? Or are they two different psychological conditions? Until recently, we left the term anguish in the philosophical world, differentiating it from clinical conditions. Soren Kierkegaard, for example, defined this as the fear we experience when we realize that our future is uncertain. Therefore, the quality of our life will depend on the choices that we make.

Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, differentiated “anguish neurosis” from “real anguish”, the latter being a pathological condition. It’s different from those purely philosophical reflections. We can say that, in essence, there are two types of anguish, one that’s called existential and the other which is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) which appears often as a symptom of many psychological disorders.

Characteristics of emotional anguish

Emotional anguish paralyzes us. While anxiety usually has a nervous trigger factor, anguish is like a cushion in times of uncertainty, against something that we can’t control or foresee.

When this uncertainty arises, worry intensifies. Obsessive, catastrophic thoughts and worry arise. Things such as facing an exam, making choices, waiting for an answer, or even having to face something that we feel we aren’t capable of usually generate anguish. Also, there are studies that show that there are people who are more susceptible to experiencing anguish. This is because the neurochemical reactions are produced by hormones and neurotransmitters. Therefore, an increase in adrenaline or a reduction in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) makes us more or less predisposed to distress.

Emotional anguish has many physical symptoms such as dizziness, digestive problems, pressure in the chest, fatigue, and muscular tension.

a man really stressed out

How can I treat my emotional anguish?

Poets, writers, and painters channel their emotional anguish through art. Most of them have experienced existential anguish. This is a recurrent feeling in human beings because we can hardly completely detach ourselves from this understandable feeling of emptiness when we look at ourselves and our future. However, we must do something when that feeling and emotion blocks us and pushes us into the corner of helplessness.

Again, Byung-Chul Han’s idea reminds us that we co-exist with uncertainty. And uncertainty is the direct trigger of emotional anguish. Therefore, anyone who thinks that this condition can be resolved with psychiatric drugs is wrong (as long as it’s not a serious condition). What we need to do is learn how to manage the ups and downs of life, better manage the unpredictable, and deal with the things that are far from our control.

We have a different approach in addressing the problem. Cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) may help in many ways. On one hand, they can help reduce and manage our anxiety, negative thoughts, and negative emotions. On the other hand, they can also help address the root cause of the problem. Let’s change our attitude to thus feel more empowered and take responsibility for ourselves in this ever complex and demanding world.