17 Aug 2018

Anxiety -- when chronic worry takes over your life

Do you have a loving partner but are constantly afraid they will leave you? Do you feel paralysed by the new and unexpected? Where do these fears come from? -- an interview with the psychiatrist  Professor Bogdan de Barbaro.

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Anxiety --  when chronic worry takes over your life - NewsMavens
Anxious woman, amenclinics, Flickr Commons

The following are fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with Professor Bogdan de Barbaro which appeared in “Wysokie Obcasy” in  July 2018.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: What’s the difference between fear and anxiety?

Professor Bogdan de Barbaro: Fear is our body’s response to a known or understood threat; it’s our internal alarm system. Let’s say you’re about to cross the street when you spot a car coming towards you. Fear is what makes you take a few steps back and prevent the situation that would most likely result in your death. Anxiety, on the other hand, refers to a chronic sense of worry, the sources of which may be totally unclear. For example: you’re afraid to use the elevator, but not because a group of shady looking guys hangs out near it and you’re scared that they might decide to accompany you. You refuse to use it because you’re afraid of small spaces. It’s not a warning signal, it’s a phobia which makes your life problematic.

AJ: In that case, is anxiety ever useful?

It can be a positive stimulant. People with stage fright often find their anxiety motivating. It helps them concentrate and ensure they perform at their best. It encourages them to confront reality, and seek solutions.

But we must remember that anxiety stops being beneficial the moment our concerns start driving us mad.

AJ: We’re bothered by many unreasonable fears. Let’s say you’re in a relationship with a loving partner but you’re constantly afraid that one day they’ll leave you.

This kind of fear often arises from our childhood. A person who never experienced parental love and affection, was constantly ignored or even mistreated as a child, often grows into a mistrustful adult, unable to accept or believe in their partner’s love and devotion. Nevertheless, I know people who, despite their unfavourable past, found a girlfriend or a boyfriend warm and dedicated enough to help them overcome this apprehension and build a healthy, long-lasting relationship together.

AJ: What fears or anxieties do your patients struggle with most often?

Many of my patients are generally anxious. They’re scared of everything that’s new and unexpected: people, places, tasks, situations.

One of them admitted recently that he couldn’t remember the last time he didn’t feel afraid.

AJ: What are the symptoms?

Mostly somatic ones: accelerated heart rate, muscle pain and tension, excessive sweating or nausea -- human body and psyche affect each other all the time.

AJ: Must these symptoms be defeated or are they something we can learn to live with?

Some people try to ignore the symptoms of anxiety because they either can’t find the remedy or they feel too proud to seek help. But there’s always a danger that the symptoms will increase. It’s a vicious circle.

For example, if someone who is afraid of people insists on avoiding them, they’ll miss the chance of a positive experience which could potentially reduce their fear. 

But there are also those who are fully aware of their fear, try to overcome it themselves, and find their way out. For example, the people who are afraid of water yet who sign up for swimming lessons. At the beginning they find it hard to dip their foot in the pool but with time and effort, they start enjoying it. For many of them, their anxiety disappears and its becomes a source of great satisfaction. 

AJ: Is the capitalist system we live in founded on fear?

It might be to an extent but, in my opinion, it’s mainly built on envy. My neighbour has got a new car, so I’m going to work hard and long enough to buy the same, or an even a better one! Our actions might be laced with fear but what capitalism really preys on is humanity's natural urge to  compete.

AJ: Some people claim that religion can help in dealing with fear.

Surely not every religion. We can divide beliefs into mature and immature ones. The immature faith generates fear -- fear of sin or fear of hell -- which is only one step away from aggression and hostility. The mature, sensible religion is based on love and compassion, it requires independent thinking, a certain dose of nonconformism and drives us toward self-development.

AJ: Do our fears change with age?

Certainly. Every new chapter activates new sources of distress. Small children are afraid of the dark, teenagers are scared of their own sexuality, people in their twenties worry they won’t have  a successful career. And when some of them finally become parents, they start to fear for their offspring. 

AJ: How about mid-life fears?

These can be very useful.

AJ: In what way?

The typical mid-life fears of loneliness, terminal illnesses and general body failure often provoke questions about the true meaning of life or the validity of our moral system.

When middle aged people realize they’re not immortal, they can reevaluate and reconstruct their lives, change their behaviour, and in some cases simply become more responsible. Some of them give up riding motorcycles, for example.

AJ: On the contrary! That’s when most of them take up new, dangerous hobbies.

You refer to those who stubbornly refuse to accept their age: “Not yet!”, “I’m still young”, or “Five more years”. I often see these men in my practice. They refuse to believe that a mid-life crisis will ever affect them until they come in and seek my professional assurance. More often than not, I’m forced to disappoint them.

AJ: What are you afraid of?

I can’t really think of anything right now...

AJ: Perhaps you’re not?

Let me think...Oh, I think I got it! I fear for my children. I’m scared that something bad will happen to them. I have two young grandchildren as well, so I’m concerned about their well-being, their physical and mental development, their future. And I do worry sometimes that one day they won’t need me. It looks like I am a human after all.


Professor Bogdan de Barbaro is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, and President of the Psychiatry Department of Jagiellonian University. 

--Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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