Today’s pages (p125-131) address the logotherapeutic treatment of anticipatory anxiety, the excessive anxiety we all sometimes feel in anticipation of a particular event or circumstance.
Viktor Frankl observes that ‘anticipatory anxiety … produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid’. When one is particularly anxious about blushing when faced with a large crowd, one is more prone to blushing in that situation.
According to Frankl, anticipatory anxiety can take two forms: ‘hyper-intention’ and ‘hyper-reflection’.
- Hyper-intention is the act of forcing oneself to desire something excessively. The more one tries to force orgasm (to use Frankl’s example), the less likely orgasm becomes.
- Hyper-reflection is an excess of attention, focussing too hard on the wrong object, and causes similar results. In this example, paying too much attention to oneself rather than one’s sexual partner also makes one’s own orgasm less likely.
The logotherapeutic solution to anticipatory anxiety is what Frankl calls ‘paradoxical intention’: simply trying to do the opposite to what one ordinarily desires.
The person anxious about reaching orgasm should try their very best not to orgasm – to demonstrate, in fact, how far from orgasm they are. The person anxious about sleeplessness should not try to sleep, but rather try their very best to stay awake. Paradoxically, sleep will come.
This procedure consists of a reversal of the patient’s attitude, inasmuch as his fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish. … Such a procedure, however, must make use of the specifically human capacity for self-detachment inherent in a sense of humour.
Perhaps this is why logotherapy appeals to me!
Looking at oneself with a healthy sense of humour helps the patient ‘put himself at a distance from his own neurosis’. Frankl quotes Gordon W Allport: ‘The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.’
Although paradoxical intention is a short-term therapeutic device, its effects can be long-term, even permanent. It works because it breaks the neurotic cycle of reinforcement because when we try to fight our anxieties, we often increase their power to disturb us.
On the other hand, as soon as the patient stops fighting his obsessions and instead tries to ridicule them by dealing with them in an ironical way – by applying paradoxical intention – the vicious circle is cut, the symptom diminishes and finally atrophies.
However, these cures do not address the reason why the symptoms of anticipatory anxiety arose in the first place. Frankl believes these neuroses grow from an ‘existential vacuum’ and so a final cure is not possible ‘except by the patient’s orientation toward his specific vocation and mission in life’.
But that’s for next time!