I was talking with some fellow counsellors about teens and anxiety.

We were talking about high achieving teens who seem to be having a lot of trouble coping with stress and anxiety when, on the surface,

it seems they are doing well in all aspects of their lives.

Lots of things came up like expectations from parents, culture, school environment etc.

There’s no doubt that all these aspects of a person’s life affect both their experience of and ability to cope with anxiety.

But there is another factor that isn’t talked about that much.

Something that gets to the core of who we are.

It’s nouns.

You’ll see why and I promise it’s not as crazy as it sounds.


According to Rollo May, the only real threats we have are those that immediately threaten our life. Anything else is really a learned threat or fear.

He says the following about anxiety:


Anxiety is the apprehension cued off by a (perceived) threat to some value

that the individual holds essential to his existence as a personality.


What does that mean?

Here’s an example:

If my idea of myself is that I’m smart, anything that would threaten that idea would create anxiety.

If I got a bad grade on a paper, or if it seemed I didn’t know as much as someone else in my area of expertise, I would feel anxious inside because suddenly my “smartness” is threatened.

But why does that happen?

Because we are attached this idea to our view of ourselves so much that we have deeply internalized it.

As a result, being smart now has immense meaning to us.

The loss of “smartness” now means the loss of an important part of ourselves.


Of course this isn’t actually the case.

Words we use to describe ourselves and others are relative, static, with meanings that change in different situations.

But we are so convinced that we ARE the words.

We are convinced that these descriptions encompass all that we are as humans, when really the essence of who we are can never be put into words.


In To Have or To Be, Erick Fromm talks about names in particular.  

By naming a person, or any object, we create the illusion that they are unchanging, fixed things.

David Bohm also talks about the increased use of nouns in the English language and how that is impacting our view of the world and ourselves.

For example, with an increased emphasis on “having” or possession, the use of nouns in the English language has increased as well.

Bohm felt that sentences should be structured so that verbs were the primary words rather than nouns

because our worldview would then shift to that of underlying connectedness rather than separation.

Verbs imply activity, movement, and process.  

Nouns imply static, unchanging, fixed.

Using nouns has a limiting effect that emphasizes a static, fixed nature of objects and people, and ignores the dynamic, ever changing aspects of all things.

It also increases the likelihood of objectifying living things and people around us, including ourselves.


Because we are so used to using nouns, many of us have a static view of ourselves and our abilities.

The words used to describe us are attached to a noun: man, woman, boy, girl.

It leads us to believe that we either are or aren’t something.

Sadly, this is why even well meaning adults who praise their children and grandchildren by telling them they are smart, talented, or any other positive description may be setting their loved ones up for future anxiety.

If we go back to the smart example, we can describe someone as a smart person.

The idea is that both the words “smart” and “person” are unchanging.

It’s implicit in the words that they are “things” not processes.


This would certainly cause us anxiety because it would give us a fixed image of ourselves that we must live up to.

That is exactly what Rollo May is talking about.

Anxiety is when something threatens this fixed image of who we think we are.


Imagine that we now described the person like this: the person is doing a good job right now.

This now opens the individual’s perception of themselves as a changing, evolving being who is in a fluid, dynamic world.

The individual’s sense of self is no longer attached to a specific description of themselves.

If the next time the they don’t succeed, they may not take it as personally as the one who was told they were smart.

Well I hope I did an okay job of showing how nouns can lead to anxiety!

Have a great weekend!