Overwhelmed by Anxiety

Sometimes we say that we are overwhelmed by anxiety. Or we might say our anxiety feels or is “overwhelming.” Nobody says, “anxiety overwhelms me,” and maybe that’s telling, or at least a decent place to start.

When we put our overwhelmed selves in the picture, we opt for the passive voice. We are not objects of anxiety but its passive subjects, and it seems we want to keep the focus on our subjective condition – on our experience and on our suffering. Whether this might be a desperate plea for compassion or more hopeless vanity is hard to say. It’s probably both of those things, one feeding the other, and a whole bunch of other things as well.

Or look at it this way: when we say we are overwhelmed by anxiety, we make ourselves out to be patients (in both the grammatical and clinical sense of the word). Anxiety is our affliction, not just a disease or something we caught like a cold, but an external agent having its way with us and working us over. We imagine it as a sort of contagion or miasma, a dark force that pursues and overtakes us.

Then again, the metaphor is more specific than that. We should remember the roots of the verb “overwhelm” in the Old English hwelfan, “to overturn [a vessel].” In the range of illustrations we have, the vessel can be anything from a cup to a pot to a ship; a gardener may also whelve the soil. A storm may whelm a ship. In any case, when we are overwhelmed by anxiety, we are the vessel. Everything is topsy-turvy. Our ship has been tossed about and turned over by the tempest. It’s a wreck. All hands are lost.

It could be an opportunity to acknowledge our own powerlessness, a reminder that the person we refer to with the first person pronoun, I, is not always able to set the course, or stick to the course we’ve set. This is something we all know, somewhere deep down inside, and some of our anxiety surely stems from this knowledge of our plain human frailty, which we try through various ruses to keep hidden from ourselves. Even here, when I say I am overwhelmed by anxiety, I am saying “I” in the face of this threat that overwhelms me, a last “I” before I might disappear. And crying out like that – clinging to that I — only tends to make it worse.

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