How to Channel Anxiety in a Positive Way

Where Are You On Maslow’s Pyramid?

“We may define therapy as a search for value.”

-Abraham Maslow

Abraham Harold Maslow (1908-1970), an American psychologist best known for “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”- a theory that employs the notion that in order to achieve one’s highest potential, one must not be lacking in any of the four essential needs of the pyramid. Of these four needs that precede the self-actualization level of the pyramid, the following must be satisfied:

  • Esteem- The desire to be valued and accepted, power, recognition.
  • Love/Belonging- Family, friends, intimacy, inclusion.
  • Safety- Money, health, stability, and a sense of personal and family safety, property, employment.
  • Physiological- Air, clothing, food, water, shelter, rest.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps outline the components needed to ensure happiness and self-actualization.

Maslow, who referenced his own work as, “positive psychology”, called the four bottom levels of his five-level model, the “deficiency needs.” These needs are called deficiency needs because, without them, we feel uncomfortable and anxious. However, when these needs are met, we are not likely to notice, or feel any different, simply because they are innate needs.

The highest of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” is self-actualization. This tier includes things such as morality, creativity, problem-solving, and spontaneity. Self-Actualization is the ability and desire to meet one’s fullest potential or to accomplish as much as one’s ability allows. Self-actualization is achieved when we are equipped and ready to “level up.” In other words, when we don’t have to worry about the basics, we have more resources available to consider our growth and development.

What Things Hinder An Individual’s Personal Growth?

When a person is living with constant fear, it is more difficult to get their needs met. For instance, when an individual feels threatened, their brain prompts the fight-or-flight response. At that state, it is unlikely that the person who is plagued by fear will have to ability to effectively utilize problem-solving skills. Additionally, that person will be so focused on meeting their safety needs, as well as the need for love/belonging and esteem.

In an effort to subdue distress and anxiety, people often use what Freud called, “defense mechanisms.” Furthermore, many individuals who suffer from anxiety may also substitute their deficiencies. Instead of adopting healthy habits that will help us achieve our needs (and thus, self-actualization), we may feel compelled to feel a sense of love/belonging by controlling our appearance or employing unhealthy eating habits. Another example would be family dysfunction or a dysfunctional household. The teenager who lives in an alcoholic family may undertake the role of the nurturing parent. Another person may take a different route- perhaps by running away or seeking solace by withdrawing from the family.

The How And What Of Defense Mechanisms

While Maslow focused his work on the study of what makes humans happy, the Austrian neurologist, and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud explored other elements of the human psyche, such as sexual energy being the driving force behind our unconscious behaviors. Freud noted several defense mechanisms people use to protect themselves from anxiety.

  • Repression
  • Denial
  • Projection
  • Displacement
  • Regression
  • Sublimation

Freud's Defense Mechanisms

Sublimation: A “Mature” Defense Mechanism

Psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, George Vaillant, contends that many of the aforementioned defense mechanisms can be harmful to us, but concluded that more “mature defenses”, like sublimation, can be productive. Vaillant proposed four layers of defense mechanisms:

  • Narcissistic
  • Immature
  • Neurotic
  • Mature

Some common examples of sublimation include channeling aggression into a sports activity, or painting when one wishes to express, in a socially-acceptable behavior, the pain they feel from a broken relationship.

Sublimation can be used to control negative impulses associated with anger, jealousy, disappointment, sadness, and mistrust.

Many notable creative and literary work have been bestowed upon humanity, most likely, as a result of the use of the sublimation defense mechanism. Van Gogh is reported to have painted one of his most prominent paintings, The Starry Night, while hospitalized at Saint-Remy. The painter Jackson Pollock, employed “action painting” into his creations. The use of movement and expression involved in this type of pursuit likely utilized the sublimation defense mechanism to deal with his own internal conflicts and anxieties.

While both artists had personal struggles- Van Gogh had mental health issues and Pollack had a tendency to become violent when drinking, it can be surmised that their ability to express themselves artistically may have helped them channel at least some of their negativity into more positive ways of dealing with their problems. Possibly, life could have been better for these artists, but we can truly never know the depths of their psyches.

Maslow’s pyramid indicates that one characteristic of self-actualization as the ability to be creative and spontaneous, independent, and honest. Pollock was widely regarded for his authenticity in his painting style. Was he true to himself? Could he have been even more successful as an artist, or even, as a husband to fellow artist Lee Krasner?

Other psychologists theorize that self-actualization involves fulfilling an altruistic need, that is, the ability to serve humanity. Perhaps by using sublimation defense mechanisms (sports, art, science, etc.), we can manage our anxieties until all our hierarchical needs are fully met. We can “fake it ‘til we make it.” Although it is challenging at times to consider altruistic endeavors, once we can find a way to overcome ourselves, we can be equipped to use our gifts to serve others.

References:

  1. https://outre-monde.com/2015/10/01/a-philosophical-cure-for-anxiety/
  2. http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/abraham-maslow/
  3. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-monroecc-hed110/chapter/theory/
  4. https://www.simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html#why
  5. https://www.verywellmind.com/biography-of-abraham-maslow-1908-1970-2795524
  6. https://www.psychologistworld.com/freud/defense-mechanisms
  7. https://psychologenie.com/understanding-concept-of-sublimation-in-psychology
  8. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jackson-Pollock

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