If you're anxious and you don't know why, existential counselling can help
When we are anxious about something, our bodies and minds react and we can feel as if the anxiety is driving us and we cannot move forward as we like. A good counsellor will help the client to work out what's causing it and to find ways of working through it.
However, upon first entering the counselling room, some people who suffer from anxiety know what is causing it, but many do not. Clients who don't know arrive in counselling saying such things as, "I feel really anxious a lot", "I keep having panic attacks" or "I just feel on edge all the time", but when you ask them why or try to explore where it comes from, it seems that they have no clue.
One thing that we can say about anxiety, is that it does not come out of anywhere. There is always a cause. It might not be an obvious or simple one, but there is always at least one reason, and quite possibly several.
Sometimes the problem turns out to be an existential one. It's a big word that, "existential" and it may sound a bit complicated, but it isn't. It just means that it's to do with the deepest things that make us human. An existential counsellor is quite similar to a person-centred one in many ways, but they perhaps work a bit more philosophically and enjoy working through conundrums. One of the things a good existential counsellor will probably do is to help the client go on a narrative exploration of their life. This is not surprising. We often get to know people best when they tell us stories about their lives and the interesting things that have happened to them. Stories and feelings often go together, and an existential counsellor will help their clients to piece together the clues that unlock the root of the anxiety.
Some of the key issues that tend to come out when an anxious person explores his or her life are:
1. A general sense of lack of meaning, direction and purpose in their life. This may be to do with plans or dreams that haven't been fulfilled or it may be to do with having once had a purpose and now having lost it - maybe work or a hobby or a relationship.
2. A sense of isolation: Perhaps having merely acquaintances and not many, if any, really close friends. There might also be a sense of there being no-one to truly share feelings about the world, or that the end of an important past relationship left a limbo that's never been recovered from.
3. Anxiety about getting older and having little time left to achieve goals. This could also be a mid life crisis (often around 45, but it can typically happen from 40-55), when people realise that something needs to change. It may also be linked to the death of family members or friends which can make some people realise that time is catching up with them too.
4. Feeling trapped by something - perhaps a job, relationship, friendship or health condition.
5. Events of the past that leave trauma, perhaps without the client even knowing. Often this is to do with school or parents - but it needn't be.
6. Some people might feel that they don't really know who they are, or that they don't know who important others really are. This can leave a feeling akin to flapping around with no real sense of safety or contentment.
7. The above point may be linked to not feeling personally validated or supported as a child. One or both of our parents may have left us feeling as if it was a struggle to make our own solid identity in the world. Or it might be that we felt labelled and thus possibly negated when we were young.
It is not always quick and simple to find the reason for hidden anxiety. It's possible that the narrative leads to answers quickly, but often it takes several stories until a picture appears - rather like a jigsaw. As a helpful addition, sometimes a dream can give you a clue to it, so an existential counsellor may ask about any memorable dreams a client has had. There can be clues there - messages from the sleeping, unconscious brain trying to tell them what the problem is - but as we know dreams are often symbolic, not literal and so they can take a bit of thinking to work through.
It may also be that what's causing the anxiety, when revealed, seems to be either a drip, drip effect over the years or perhaps something that felt or feels like an assault on our very being. Either way, it can be difficult to work through, but experience shows that once the cause of deep anxiety is known, it can begin to be addressed.
Anxiety has always been around, but in this day and age with a seemingly increasing number of problems in the world and national news to add to our own feelings of discomfort, it can often be very acute. Some clients may have strong ideas for where there anxiety springs from, but for those who don't, existential counselling can be a great way of looking for answers.
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About David Seddon
David is a BACP accredited counsellor who is passionately interested in helping people to have happier, better lives. He has an MA in counselling and a BA in philosophy and works in a person-centred, existential and short term solution-focussed way. He runs a private practice in Congleton, Cheshire and also works for EAPs and worldwide via Skype.